How to Become a Chief Listening Officer

Organizations are slowly waking up to the need to increase listening at all levels. The big question is not whether to do so, but how.

A recent article in Forbes Magazine went straight to the heart of the issue. John Ryan wrote: "We need to be the chief listening officers in our organizations--every day. That's not an easy task, since listening can be a great struggle for even the best intentioned among us. It is, however, something we can improve with effort, and frankly we don't have much choice."

He quotes the advice of Michael Hoppe, a retired faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership:
  • Pay attention. Turn off your BlackBerry. Maintain eye contact. Nod to show you understand. Otherwise the conversation is dead before it starts.
  • Suspend judgment. Hold your criticisms, and let others explain how they view a situation. You don't need to agree; just show some empathy.
  • Reflect. Periodically recap others' points to confirm your understanding. Often it turns out you missed something.
  • Clarify. Ask open-ended questions that encourage people to expand their ideas. For example: "What are your thoughts about how we might increase sales in this economy?"
  • Summarize. Briefly restate core themes raised by the person you're talking with. You're not agreeing or disagreeing; you're simply closing the loop.
  • Share. Once you know where that person stands, introduce your own ideas and suggestions. That's how good conversations get even better.
All great ideas!

And of course, I'd add my own tweaks. At stages 3 and 5, make sure you use their words--parrot-phrase, don't paraphrase. And at stage 4, I'd suggest using the "ultra-open questions" of Clean Language, such as, "What kind of X (is that X)?"

The great thing is to pay conscious attention to your listening skills. They can definitely be improved with practice and training!

I was training a group of young managers recently, most of whom had just been given their first supervisory responsibility, and we did a number of activities to show them the difference real listening can make. For example, just being listened to for two minutes without interruption or questions helped every participant to think more deeply and express themselves more clearly. Now they are planning to make this a regular practice.

Why not find a partner and try it? Once you feel listened to, maybe you too will feel more motivated to listen to others.


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