Living in a foreign country can be a valuable learning experience. Just ask former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, who credited his time spent in Japan as a crucial step in his professional development. Why, you might wonder. Because during this time, he learned to listen. According to McKinsey Quarterly Palmisano said, “I learned to listen by having only one objective: comprehension. I was only trying to understand what the person was trying to convey to me. I wasn’t listening to critique or object or convince.”
Living in Japan forced him to devote his attention solely to understanding rather than planning what he’d say next or poking holes in someone’s argument. He discovered the art of great listening, which, as I’ll explain, can vault you ahead in your career, or help take your business to the next level.
It’s important to note that listening and hearing are not the same things. Most of us overestimate our ability to listen, as the Harvard Business Review writes, but these exceptional listeners share a few things in common that we can all learn a little bit from to improve our listening skills.
The professional benefits of tuning in
For starters, good listening fosters the creation of a psychologically safe workplace environment. When your colleagues feel supported, they’re more likely to contribute their ideas. As a result, your team has a higher chance of finding the best solution.
Careful listening fosters understanding between parties, even in the face of disagreement. Research indicates that if you want to persuade people, you should frame your points using your opponents’ moral framework. Rather than arguing with passion, it might be better to listen carefully and respond based on the other person’s perspective. Then, once you reach a consensus, you can work more effectively toward mutual goals.
Listening carefully can help with generating new ideas and identifying smart business opportunities. Bernard T. Ferrari, dean of the Carey Business School of the Johns Hopkins University, once wrote, “Good listening—the active and disciplined activity of probing and challenging the information garnered from others to improve its quality and quantity—is the key to building a base of knowledge that generates fresh insights and ideas.”
It also helps organizations to improve their products or services. Too often, companies focus on what they want to offer to the detriment of what their users want. They fail to listen to valuable feedback and end up alienating the customer.
How to be a great listener
So, what exactly do we mean when we talk about good listening?
Ultimately, it comes down to being an active and supportive conversation partner. Based on a Harvard Business Review study of nearly 3,500 participants, here are a few tips that you can pick up from outstanding listeners.
1. Ask questions
While it’s essential to pipe down while someone else is speaking, the best listeners go one step further and periodically ask questions to acquire more information. This way, they simultaneously show that they’re paying attention, attempt to clarify any uncertainties, and satisfy their curiosities.
And, of course, it’s essential to pay attention to the answer without any assumptions and preconceptions. If I ask a question already knowing the answer I’m after, I’ll try to fit the response into my existing framework. But if I come at it with an open mind, I’m much more likely to learn something.
2. Be supportive, not defensive
To create a safe environment, good listeners make their conversation partners feel supported. They do so by showing confidence in them, rather than being overly critical or defensive.
This is particularly important when it comes to receiving feedback, where our first instinct may be to react defensively. If instead, we welcome input and signal that we’re actively listening, we can harvest valuable information.
We can make breakthroughs about ourselves, too. For example, with my online form company JotForm, we used to see our forms as a way to collect data. But by listening to users, we realized that many customers were more interested in acting on that data—analyzing and making sense of what it meant to their businesses. We came to view JotForm as a productivity tool, too.
3. Make suggestions
Finally, researchers found that the best listeners tended to give constructive feedback to their interlocutors. To be clear, they make suggestions in a way that signals to the speaker that they’ve been listening—as opposed to being argumentative or simply waiting their turn to weigh in. Or, if you prefer to allow the speaker to reach their own solution, experts recommend posing a question, such as “I wonder what will happen if you choose to do X?” instead.
Using these tips, hopefully, you can shore up your listening skills, without having to move to a new country.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.