What is your listening style?

A good manager knows that listening is important, but too few people know how to listen well. Even common techniques like “active listening” can be counterproductive. After all, simply sharing speaking time or repeating what a speaker has said does not lead to understanding.

Consider three common conversations:

Employee: “I’m worried about my presentation to the board. »
Supervisor: “Oh, you are doing very well. It took me years to be able to present without being nervous.

Colleague A: “I really need a vacation.”
Colleague B: “You should go to this rustic resort in the mountains. Just returned from there and it was the best vacation I have had in years. I’ll send you the info.”

Patient: “I’m afraid of this procedure.”
Clinician: “Your surgeon did hundreds. The complication rate is low.

The well-meaning answers above aren’t blatant, but they don’t address the speakers’ needs or concerns. The employee worried about the board meeting may want critical feedback rather than premature reassurance, co-worker A’s flippant statement about the need for a vacation may portend deeper unstated issues not addressed by a route, and the patient may have had relevant concerns underlying their emotions that are missed by attempts to reassure themselves.

These examples serve to illustrate an important aspect of leadership: most of us miss opportunities in interactions because of the default ways in which we listen. Like other essential communication skills, listening well depends on awareness of goals, our own habits, and choosing how to respond. The good news is that with practice, we can all be more effective listeners.

Listening Styles

Learning to listen well starts with understanding what type of listener you are. In our work as critical care clinicians and debriefing experts who teach how to optimize learning conversations, we have observed four distinct listening styles:

  • A analytical auditor aims to analyze a problem from a neutral starting point.
  • A relationship auditor aims to establish a connection and understand the emotions underlying a message.
  • A critical listener aims to judge both the content of the conversation and the reliability of the speaker himself.
  • A task-oriented auditor shapes a conversation towards an efficient transfer of important information.

Developing the ability to dynamically switch between these styles can lead to impactful conversations by matching speaker needs with the most appropriate listening technique. This is the first step to improving your listening.

5 Ways to Improve Your Listening

Becoming a better listener doesn’t just mean understanding how you listen, it also requires taking certain steps. We outline the five most important things auditors can do to improve.

1. Determine why you are listening.

There are myriad reasons why we listen the way we do: to be effective, to avoid conflict, to get attention, to support, or simply to entertain. When these reasons are prioritized repeatedly (and perhaps unconsciously), we overlook other listening goals.

When entering a conversation, consider briefly thinking about the purposes of the conversation and how best to listen at the time. Is the speaker looking for honest criticism, analytical reflection, or emotional connection? We may not have the bandwidth to fully listen – that is, we are listening on the surface – and should share this with the other person who may be looking for more than we can give. at this moment.

2. Recognize how you usually listen.

Our “usual” style of listening can sabotage our goals. We may have received positive feedback for being consistently effective, funny, articulate, or supportive, but the default style used may prevent the application of different listening styles to achieve other goals. For example, time-pressed environments often require task-oriented or critical listening styles in order to make quick decisions. While it can be consistently effective at work, it can backfire when applied frequently at home to family and friends who may need something more than quick decision support.

Child: “I’m not going to school today. I have no friends.”
Parent: “Of course you have friends! You have just been invited to Sally’s birthday party. At recess today, say hello to three new kids.

When expressions of emotion are confronted with task-oriented or critical listening styles, as in the example above, we can miss valuable opportunities to better understand underlying values ​​and concerns or even to gain actionable insights by exploring or offering empathy through validation. In these situations, offering coaching or a false assurance such as a friendly “everything will be fine” can leave people feeling ignored and discouraged from sharing.

3. Know who is the center of attention.

Beyond listening styles, how we insert ourselves into the speaker’s narrative shifts the focus of conversational attention. We often assume that intervening in our own personal stories is an empathetic and relationship-building move, but it gets in the way of hearing the other’s full message. While it can be fun to chime in and sometimes helpful to promote connection, when done without being aware of it, it risks leading the conversation away from the speaker without redirecting back. For example, when doctors interject into a personal commentary in an empathetic attempt to connect, research shows that the conversation rarely returns to the patient’s concern.

When a listener is aware of the impact of the intervention and remains curious about the speaker’s message, it is possible to share attention without losing the speaker’s message by redirecting back to the speaker. This can be done by sharing a personal thought and then returning the focus:

Colleague A: “I really need a vacation.”
Colleague B: “I just came back from a rustic resort in the mountains, and it was so restorative. I’m curious to know what’s going on with you. Want to speak ?

4. Adapt listening style to achieve conversational goals.

With increasing stressors, our executive functioning and cognitive flexibility are challenged, making it more difficult to adjust our default listening style. Its good. Staying focused on the speaker and the objectives will help you adapt to the needs of the situation. In a patient expressing fear, responding with validation and curiosity can allow the clinician to gather valuable information and respond more effectively to the patient’s needs:

Patient: “I’m afraid of this procedure.”
Clinician: “Even if the complication rate is very low, it is normal to be afraid. It’s a big procedure. [Pause.] What scares you the most?

The clinician’s first impulse is to respond confidently, providing outcome data. It may seem abnormal to drop this completely. By also acknowledging and exploring the emotion being expressed, the patient is more likely to feel heard and validated. The clinician may learn that during this patient’s last procedure, she developed a dangerous heart rhythm or that her brother recently had a procedure that resulted in a stroke. In addition to helping the patient feel heard, learning about the complications would dramatically change how the clinician approaches patient care before and during the procedure.

5. Ask: Did I miss something?

It can be difficult to determine the objectives of the conversation if the speaker who initiates the conversation does not know what he hopes to get out of it. Ambiguity over goals, uncertainty over shared vulnerability, unexamined emotions, and logistical pressures can be part of the discovery process. Because we deeply shape this process through the way we listen, we need to ask ourselves if the ongoing conversation seems to be productive and what we may be missing.

Taking a few seconds to pause and reflect before an automatic response can help reveal a more subtle and important opportunity. If this problem-solving, busy parent has a longer-term goal of connecting and understanding what their child is going through, they may have more success by starting with a more relational style of listening:

Child: “I’m not going to school today. I have no friends.”
Parent: “It’s a hard feeling to have. [Pause] Do you want to talk about it?

Resisting the urge to reassure or offer solutions and invite more detail to better understand what’s behind a tense statement is a useful analytical listening technique that can be incorporated into a conversation to help guide your style. listening when urgent decision-making is not required.

The impact of better listening

Consider, again, the nervous employee preparing for a presentation. What if the supervisor instead responded with something like this:

Employee: “I’m worried about my presentation to the board. »
Supervisor: “I was also nervous when I started presenting. What is worrying you ?

This response, so different from the initial comment (“Oh, you’re fine. It took me years before I could present without being nervous”) shows the employee that the manager has heard the concern behind the concern .

Experimenting with how we listen solidifies our active partnership in conversations. It widens the space for others to reveal what really matters to them and can actually be more effective if we can get to the heart of the matter more deliberately. By intentionally applying new ways of listening, we build relationships, understand others, collaborate, and solve problems more effectively.

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