Psychotherapists often tout their superior listening skills. Psychoanalysts in particular consider themselves to be excellent listeners. After all, they do not speak, do not interrupt very often and retain much of what they have heard.
On the other hand, they always seem to assume that you are not saying what you really mean and thus that most of what you are saying requires interpretation.
And yet, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman offer a useful corrective to these notions in the Harvard Business Review. They show what ought to be going on when you are listening to someone, especially when you are seeking to make a connection with the person. And, most especially, when you are trying to help the person to solve a problem.
For the record, the authors do not relate their findings to the practice of therapy or even of psychoanalysis. They were, I assume, leaving the question open… for me.
Were you to ask a therapist what constitutes good listening, he would reply that a good listener does not talk very much, but makes facial expressions and strange sounds that pretend to show interest. He can even repeat what the other person has said, word for word. In time, the therapist will offer an interpretation that shows the true, hidden meaning of what his patient has been saying. One might say that failing to take someone at his word is disrespectful… and one would be correct to say so.
Management theory tells us that these are not effective listening skills. When you exit a therapist’s office and enter the world of business, when you begin to engage with reality, you cannot get away with such ideologically-driven childishness.
What did the researchers discover?
First, good listeners engage actively with their interlocutors. They ask questions, seek out more information and even more clarity.
The authors write:
… people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions, but do so in a constructive way. Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to want additional information. Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog, rather than a one-way “speaker versus hearer” interaction. The best conversations were active.
Second, good listeners give face… or, as the authors put it, they enhance the other person’s self-esteem. This means that good listeners do not criticize or complain, and do not pretend to be passive receptacles. If your interlocutor feels respected he will be more likely to express himself openly and to address the questions that need to be addressed. If he feels respected by you he will be more likely to respect whatever you have to say. He will not feel that he needs to defend himself or to justify his existence.
Good listeners are not arguing. They are not competing. They are trying to get along with you, to connect with you… with the best you have to offer.
They are not trying to catch you in an error. They are not telling you that you are not saying what you really mean. They are not trying to pry into matters you would prefer not to discuss.
The authors explain:
In these interactions, feedback flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. By contrast, poor listeners were seen as competitive — as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.
Good listeners also offer suggestions about how to solve a problem. Or else, how to look at the problem from a different perspective. One notes, with some chagrin, that therapists insist that they are not in the problem-solving business. They are in the get-in-touch-with-your feelings business. Presumably, they believe that problems solve themselves, not because you have a different perspective on reality, but because you feel differently about it.
The authors explain:
Good listening invariably included some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider. This finding somewhat surprised us, since it’s not uncommon to hear complaints that “So-and-so didn’t listen, he just jumped in and tried to solve the problem.” Perhaps what the data is telling us is that making suggestions is not itself the problem; it may be the skill with which those suggestions are made. Another possibility is that we’re more likely to accept suggestions from people we already think are good listeners. (Someone who is silent for the whole conversation and then jumps in with a suggestion may not be seen as credible. Someone who seems combative or critical and then tries to give advice may not be seen as trustworthy.)
Given their gift for metaphor, the authors declare that good listeners are more like trampolines than sponges. You can bounce ideas off of them. They do not suck all the life out of your discourse. They are not just passively absorbing your words, but are actively engaging with them. And they do not make you feel drained. They make you feel that you can ascend to new heights.