Editor’s Note: To Improve Your Leadership Style, Fix Your Listening Style
People are, by nature, terrible listeners. We listen to speak rather than to understand. Our minds wander constantly, making it difficult to take in and retain information. We go into defense mode if presented with opposing views. However, listening effectively might be the superpower that underpins success in the workplace.
In her 2019 book You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, author Kate Murphy recounts research involving several thousand participants conducted by the University of Minnesota. The study found that immediately after a short talk, listeners missed half of what was said, even if those people thought they were attentive. Two months later, the same listeners could remember only 25 percent of what they heard. “To beat those averages, it’s helpful to think of listening as similar to meditation,” writes Murphy. “You make yourself aware of and acknowledge distractions, then return to focus.”
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There are also tactics that make it easier to truly hear opposing views, including attempting to understand the other person’s journey rather than arguing a specific point. Murphy writes that “at the moment you feel you are going to react with hostility toward those who disagree with you, take a breath and ask them a question, not to expose flawed logic but to truly expand your understanding of where they are coming from.” She explains that “we only become secure in our convictions by allowing them to be challenged.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, experts have lamented that teleconferencing platforms impede understanding—that we were no good at communicating via a little box on our screens. In fact, Murphy herself wrote an article titled “Why Zoom Is Terrible,” in the New York Times in March 2020. “The problem is that the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized introduces all kinds of artifacts: blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness, and out-of-sync audio,” she wrote. “These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy, and tired without quite knowing why.”
After nearly three years of moving in and out of remote work, accessing most resources digitally, and discussing what in-person interactions are most useful, many experts have changed their tune. Far from criticizing new ways of working, these workplace gurus are finding virtue in a variety of working styles via numerous platforms. In an article in Forbes, authors David Benjamin and David Komlo reversed course in “Do People Still Interact Better When In-Person? Virtual Meetings are Catching Up.”
In prior research, the authors had insisted that in-person communication is vastly superior—if not absolutely necessary—to employee engagement and effective performance. In their post-pandemic article, the authors shifted to saying that “…people must be in close conversation together” rather than being in the same room sitting together. They note that employees need a “genuine sense of connection” rather than opportunities to be in the physical presence of another.
This change, the authors note, is “because in the last two years we’ve seen the light in terms of the newest technologies and techniques that can make face-to-face feel like a necessity of the past…including when it comes time to crack complex challenges.” Because of the increasingly high quality of teleconferencing technology some of the nonverbal messages thought to only be visual in person are “even easier to spot than when the group is in the same room together.”
And, as everything changed, everything stayed the same. The key to communication and understanding—in any environment—is still listening. As Sarah Gershman notes in her article, “Stop Zoning Out in Zoom Meetings” in the Harvard Business Review, “The secret to effective participation involves thoughtful and targeted listening.” She notes that “there is a lot of sound advice about how leaders can run more effective virtual meetings. While this advice is critical, what is often overlooked is the role that listeners play in ensuring a meeting’s success.”
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Throughout these scenarios and situations, one refrain rises again and again: Listen and genuinely try to understand. As Murphy notes in her book, listening as an organizational value can help leaders multiply the benefits. “Listening begets listening,” writes Murphy. “Someone who has been listened to is far more likely to listen to you.”