Learning To Be A Power Listener

In business, the consequences of failing to properly frame or assess an issue can be dire. Often such a misdiagnosis is the result of not having the right information. Though the necessary information is often available, businesspeople sometimes don't know how to find it or don't see it in front of them. The reason? Poor listening skills.

To improve your listening skills, you must first figure out exactly what is keeping you from seeking and hearing the information you need. Are you hearing only what you want to hear? Are you answering only your own questions? Are you faking it? I'm going to describe six of the more common archetypes of bad listeners. I call these "archetypes" because no one is a pure case.

What Kind of Listener Are You?

The Opinionator: I knew one CEO of a major industrial company, a seasoned executive, who had a habit of cutting people off three sentences into the presentation of a new idea. "Look," he would snap, "let me tell you how I see this…" From there, he would proceed to express his opinion with no uncertainty.

This CEO was a classic example of the first type of poor listener: the Opinionator. At the heart of an Opinionator's problem is his tendency to listen to others really only to determine whether or not his ideas conform to what the Opinionator already knows to be true. The Opinionator may believe that he is listening intently, and indeed he may very well be, but that doesn't mean he's listening with an open mind. This kind of listener probably has the best of intentions, but the net effect of this listening style is that conversation partners feel intimidated or at least somewhat uncomfortable, and colleagues' ideas—good or bad—are routinely squelched.

A telltale sign of an Opinionator is the tendency to start sentences with "Listen . . ." and to end them with ". . . right?"

The Grouch: Whereas the Opinionator's listening is limited by his belief that his ideas are right, the Grouch is blocked by the certainty that your ideas are wrong. A typical Grouch, a top executive officer I worked with at an industrial corporation, made no secret of his contempt for other people's ideas. This Grouch might express his displeasure differently to different people, but his responses all seemed to carry the same implicit message: "You're full of it. You're a fool. Why did you even think I'd be interested in this?"

I used to coach teams at his company to prepare them for dealing with him. The first fifteen minutes of the meeting will be hell, I told them, but if you press on bravely, he will eventually acknowledge you. It was true; by the end of many meetings, the Grouch would say, "OK. Yeah, I get it. I understand this now." I knew plenty of people in the company who just didn't have it in them to break through those barriers every time they needed to express an idea to him, and I worried about what it cost the company in missed opportunities over time.

The Preambler: In 2004, Jon Stewart appeared as a guest on CNN's Crossfire. Instead of engaging in the expected witty banter, Stewart confronted the two hosts, saying that the "debate" and "discourse" on the show was a sham, a theatrical device designed to let them vent their own political views. Television pundits have become the very embodiment of the poor-listening archetype I call the Preambler, whose windy lead-ins and questions are really stealth speeches. The Preambler uses this technique to steer the conversation, or to send out a warning, or to produce a desired answer, as if the dialogue had been scripted.

The Perseverator: Of course, the problem with speeches and loaded or rhetorical questions is that they are the very definition of one-way communication, and that's not very conducive to problem solving.

The Perseverator talks too much, in the way the Preambler does, but presents difficulties that are more subtle but no less confounding. The Perseverator may appear to be engaged in productive dialogue, but if you pay attention, you might notice that he's not really advancing the conversation. As often as not, he's actually editing on the fly, fine-tuning what he is saying through constant reiteration. His goal is only to help him sharpen his point or shoehorn your thoughts into supporting his prejudices and biases.

The Perseverator may seem to be engaging in a dialogue, until you figure out that his statements not only don't advance the conversation, but may not even be directed at you. He is busy thinking out loud, and will eventually lead everyone back to the same predictable place.

Answer Man: Everyone likes to be the problem solver. You grab the spotlight and deliver what's needed to figure out a difficult problem or lay down the path to a required action. An extreme version of the problem solver reveals himself in conversation as the Answer Man.

This is the person who starts spouting solutions before there is even a consensus about what the challenge might be, signaling that he is finished listening to your input in the conversation. On the surface, the Answer Man may seem quite similar to the Opinionator, but there is a fundamental difference. The Opinionator is hamstrung by the certainty that he or she is simply right. The Opinionator knows what's what. The Answer Man, on the other hand, is desperately eager to please, or to impress, with his quickness and brilliance.

It might seem like this individual has to be the smartest person in the room, but more often, what he or she needs is to be valued, to be indispensable. Some think having the answer and having it right now is the hallmark of a great leader, but insufficient discussion can lead you to act on a half-baked and overly simplistic understanding of a situation.

The Pretender: So do we conclude that the quiet, polite listener is the good listener?

Not necessarily.

How many times have you had this experience? You talk with a boss or a colleague, arguing your points elegantly and articulately. You're convinced that you're having an impact because the other person nods wisely at all the right moments, and laughs when he's supposed to. Maybe he even finishes some of your sentences, not in a rude way, but in a way that shows he is engaged with your train of thought. And then, as soon as you walk out of the meeting, you have the uncomfortable sense that he hasn't really heard a word you were saying; or maybe he heard it all and just didn't care. This guy is a great actor, and he has just put on a great show. He's the Pretender. The Pretender isn't really interested in what you have to say. Maybe he's already made up his mind on the subject; maybe he's distracted by other matters; maybe he has to put on a show of listening for political reasons. Whatever the reason, we'd all be better off if he would drop the pretense.

The greatest Pretender I ever came across was the CEO of a many-tentacled health-care corporation, a man I always think of as the Suit. This man was straight out of central casting: good looking and polished, clever and charming. He had all the right moves. You'd swear he was hanging on every word you uttered, and you'd walk out of his office feeling like a million bucks, won over completely by his knowing, empathetic smile. It might take a while, but eventually you'd realize that he hadn't acted on anything you said, even though he had given every indication he was processing what you had to say and was in agreement. The Suit firmly believed that it was his job to make all the stakeholders within the company feel like they were being heard, that they were connected to, and well cared for by, the people at the top. If that was his only mission, and he accomplished it very well, but I have to ask, at what price? He let people talk, but he didn't take in what they were saying. The result was a lot of ill-informed choices.

You are likely a good listener at times. However, if you are honest with yourself you will recognize that many of these archetypes of bad listening apply to you at different times and in different situations.

You might be a Grouch on certain subjects or at different moments in the business cycle, but act more like a benign Pretender in other circumstances. You need to be able to recognize the behavior of each of these types—in yourself, as well as in others—as the first step toward improving your own listening skills and raising the overall level of communication and decision making in your organization.

Adapted from Power Listening by Bernard T. Ferrari by arrangement with Portfolio Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Bernard T. Ferrari.

[Image: Flickr user Abrinsky]

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5 Comments

  • Beth Miller

    Listening is the one skill that, if improved by leaders and managers, could drastically improve innovation and productivity.  I like your names for the listening types.  Beth Armknecht Miller

  • Dianne Crampton

    Good article. I like how it has been broken down into listening types. I would add, however, that to be a power listener it is also important to learn how to listen with empathy and where that comes in the listening skill set.

  • Eileen N. Sinett

    It's not a surprise to me that there are so many poor listening habits. While we were taught to read and write in our earliest school years, we were not similarly taught to listen and speak.  Unless one had a hearing or learning issue, competencies in listening and speaking were assumed.  Being told to "be quiet," stop talking and listen"  were the traditional and typical educational tactics to improve listening. -
    Eileen N. Sinett

  • Marian Thier

    These are apt descriptors that to some extent parallel the four listening habits identified in my research The research is the basis for Hear! Hear? Your Listening Portfolio®, an online instrument that assesses listening habits. Poor listening is way too expensive to overlook, and I totally agree that few of us really understand how we listen and how our brains, bodies and emotions form the habits we rely upon, sometimes to our benefit and sometimes to our detriment.

  • OscarMarroquin

    Excellent descriptions of bad listeners, I’ve witnessed many
    of these behaviors.   It seems to me that listening skills appear to
    diminish as people move up the corporate ladder.  I can't imagine a staffer exhibiting the bad
    listening behaviors you described when a senior manager/CEO is speaking.  I believe that good listening needs to be
    practiced at all times, regardless of your position.  It would be interesting to find out at what
    point (on the ladder) people begin to believe that listening is no longer
    necessary.  Unfortunately, many bad
    listeners are encouraged by their "reputation" and continue the behavior
    instead of correcting it.  I imagine that
    more poor listeners would change their behavior if they would only listen!