Listening with impact – II

Listening with Impact

Listening with Impact

In Part 1 of “listening with impact” we saw two examples of how listening helps in gaining respect from people.

In this part let’s start with the excellent interview by McKinsey with the CEO of Amgen, Kevin Sharer. Kevin advocates the quality of listening with only one objective, i.e. to “comprehend”. Unless you understand, you would not be able to get the information you need and then deal with it appropriately. From a 90:10 ratio, 90% tell, 10% listen, Kevin (after he was CEO) strived hard to reach 50:50 (perhaps this was his value system). I urge you to read the transcript or see the video available here, to understand Kevin’s view on the concept of strategic listening. Kevin also talks about the importance of “hearing danger” which is always a weak signal. Kevin indicates his disapproval of some leaders that operate under the premise “no news is good news”. I have seen some leaders who consider “no noise” as good news, which is equally flawed. As an effective leader, you need to set up your information gathering machinery to pull and attract information from all possible directions and all levels to ensure that your team is headed in the right direction.

An exercise to listen well

One thing that helps is “improv”. In business school we participated in a team exercise where in front of an audience a team would tell a story. The story was cobbled together in real-time with each team member saying just one word. The next person had to actively listen, take in the word, and meaningfully place the next word into a logical sentence aimed towards creating the story. The next person had to then take the previous two words and add his/her own. This had to be done very quickly without pausing. So you can imagine the listening that had to go on. You simply could not pick out your word until the previous fraction of a second when you hear the word from your team member!

Another great way to listen is to have the sole objective of asking questions.

During a full 40 minute presentation to our CEO upon the completion of a successful project, I was amazed that the CEO spoke only for about 3-4 minutes in all. He listened for more than 90% of the time! Half of his speaking time was making small talk and some light humor. But he asked about 4 pointed questions. For one of those, he even asked me to go back a few slides and he connected the information in one slide to that in another. Talk about deep reading and quick absorption!

He could come up with these questions only after he totally understood what we were presenting. I thought this was deep listening at its best, and a hallmark of effective leadership.  Because he listened (and read) intently, the CEO was able to ask relevant and valuable questions.


If you believe the fact that others around you “keep” valuable information that you can extract, then you are in a good position to improve your listening skills.

I have found that genuine compliments such as “Oh, I didn’t think of that” or “wow, that’s a great way to think about it” or simply asking the person to elaborate the point since you want to understand it better, really help.

The objective of listening is total comprehension. Just understand the person. Once you build this habit into your value system, you will not only gain more respect but people around you will trust you and will open up with more thoughts that they wouldn’t express otherwise.

In his excellent book “7 habits of highly effective people” Stephen Covey has devoted an entire chapter to listening. Seek first to understand, then to be understood, he calls it. The powerful example that he uses “I don’t understand my son; he wouldn’t listen to me” is priceless. In order to understand his son, shouldn’t the father listen to the son?

Some years back when I was deputed by State Bank of India to a small village in interior Maharashtra, I was looking for a house to rent. The one house that I liked belonged to one of the quietest, most feared and supposedly strict retired teacher in the village. The teacher never spoke to anyone and most people avoided him. He just had a reputation. As I approached him, I simply asked him about the subjects he had taught and how that helped his students. I may have turned a fire-hose on, for the person simply poured out all his experiences, opinions, stories to me for the next two hours. I was barely able to get a compliment or a question in. He even offered me tea, and needless to add I was able to rent the house quite easily and cheaply.

As with most habits, deep listening can also be practiced and perfected. Conversely, if not monitored and practiced, these skills can deteriorate. I realized sometime back that mine had deteriorated. Therefore, I have made enhancing my listening skills one of my objectives and I want this great quality to be a part of my value system.

My technique

The very simple technique I have adopted is as follows:

a. For every 2-3 minutes of listening, I must come up with at least one of the following four things:

i. A confirmation of what the person just stated, using his/her own words – this ensures you are at your attentive best, trying to comprehend the other person.

ii.    A conclusion (or an interim one) on what the person just stated; this could also be in the form of a question to see if I understood the person correctly. This builds trust and the person then genuinely tries to simplify his/her statements to make you understand. They will put such effort only when they realize that you are keen on listening to them, i.e. you are respecting them and their thoughts.

iii.     Ask a pointed question which will enable the person elaborate what he/she just stated. This is really valuable and displays a higher level of trust. You now show that you care even more, and want to understand their thought process (means) and not just what they are stating (results).

iv. Take some notes related to what was just stated. I find this to be very effective especially when I feel I am “losing” my attentiveness. This helps you pause a bit, helps them gather their thoughts and depicts a level of respect so high that you want to remember what they saying even after the discussion is over (by referring to the notes).

b. Each day I want to cover at least five people with whom I would practice such deep listening

c. Aim for a count of between 10 and 15 notes, conclusions, confirmations or questions

The measurement is introduced with strategic intent, since we know that only what can be measured, can be controlled and then improved.

What are your thoughts on listening? I’d love to hear about your experiences and stories related to this powerful aspect of leadership. Please use the comments to share.  Image: (c)’s_Human_Rights_Record_at_the_U.N._Human_Rights_Council.jpg” target=”_blank”>United States Mission Geneva