The Ability to Listen: An Invaluable But Underdeveloped Business Tool

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”

Bernard M. Baruch

The ability to communicate our ideas to others is essential for success in business. Less often discussed, however, but just as essential to effective communication is the ability to listen. As simple and obvious as this seems, it remains a major problem in business, underlying innumerable breakdowns and failures. Fortunately, the dysfunctions associated with this can be corrected by those who truly wish to.

Our educational system emphasizes effective communication in the form speaking and writing, but often deemphasizes an equally essential skill— active, empathic listening.  Making ourselves understood is certainly important in an interdependent world and deserves the attention that it gets.

But the ability to generate coherent expressions is only part of what’s required for success. We have to genuinely understand those with whom we interact in business transactions. The ability to speak and write eloquently can leave you high and dry if your understanding of those with whom you seek to communicate is poor.

The biggest problem in business

We’ve all heard the old adage— the biggest single problem in business is communication, and my experiences certainly bear that out. But only a fraction of the dysfunctions caused by that problem can be alleviated by our becoming better speakers and writers.

Much of our ability to communicate effectively with others stems from our willingness to listen effectively, a skill for which we are provided very little formal training. This oversight is a serious one that affects some of the most important functions in the world of business.

The importance of “emotional intelligence”

Daniel Goleman, whose pioneering work in the area now known as “emotional intelligence,” has done extensive work on factors that predict success in the “real world” settings (as opposed to the academic domain). His work, though complicated in terms of methodology, is very straightforward in its intent to isolate factors that predict the performance of business organizations.

Analyzing data from over 200 companies, such as Lucent Technologies, Credit Suisse, and British Airways, Goleman isolated the contributions of three different kinds of skills related to performance. Summarizing these briefly, he compared the importance of the following kinds of competencies:

• Purely technical skills, including such those involved in activities such as accounting, business planning, or software development.

• Cognitive skills of the kind normally associated with IQ, such as analytical reasoning and abstract thinking.

• Emotional intelligence, which includes those social competencies associated with empathy and communication that enable us to understand and work effectively with others.

Some startling results

Goleman’s findings were striking and dramatic. While technical skills and IQ did predict performance to some degree, emotional intelligence turned out to be twice as important for success as the other two. Interestingly enough, this was true for jobs at all levels in the organizations he studied.

But there’s more. His results also showed that emotional intelligence was especially crucial for those in executive positions. Simply put, the higher the rank of a “star performer,” the more his or her level of emotional intelligence distinguished them from their less effective counterparts.

For those in senior leadership positions, as much as 90 percent of the difference between stellar and average performers was attributable to factors associated with emotional intelligence. The importance of “people skills” in business cannot be understated.

Goleman’s work by no means stands alone in supporting such conclusions. Other researchers have corroborated his results, and the body of evidence regarding the value of emotional intelligence only grows as more results come in. This brings to mind another old adage: “Business is all about relationships.”

The role of empathy

One key component of emotional intelligence is empathy— the ability to understand the perspectives of others. We’ve all had bad experiences with others who are low in this capacity.

People who are impaired in the “empathy department” tend to be self centered and callous. Such individuals are so focused on their own perspectives that they blunder about irritating and offending others, often without having the slightest idea that they are doing so.  They often interrupt others and don’t hear what they are saying, leaving a trail of offense that comes back to bite them in various ways later. 

As a result, they fail to secure the trust and commitment of subordinates, who feel devalued and trodden upon. Many of them use fear and intimidation as motivators. They also tend to make enemies who would delight in seeing them fail— not exactly a formula for success.

The concept of “emotional bank accounts”

Steve Covey’s classic work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People dealt extensively with the importance of “people skills” in business. Like Goleman, he emphasizes the value of empathic listening. Although his terminology is a little different from Goleman’s, his ideas are very similar. 

Covey recommends that we “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” In doing so, he makes it plain that one key to being an effective communicator is to be a great listener. The reasons for this are twofold: (1) Understanding how others see things makes it easier to communicate with them in ways that they’ll relate to, and (2) people love to be listened to— if you take the first step, they’ll very often return the courtesy.

Covey also discusses what he calls “emotional bank accounts” that we have with others.  Like real bank accounts, we can make “deposits” in and “withdrawals” from these accounts. If we listen or extend other courtesies to others, we earn their respect by making deposits in our accounts with them.

If we’re indifferent, rude, or callous, we’re making withdrawals from our account with them, and undermining any respect they might have for us. Ultimately, we can deplete our accounts to the point where our relations with them are severely damaged.

Empathic listening, therefore, makes us better communicators and also motivates those with whom we wish to communicate to be more willing to listen to us. It’s an extremely inexpensive means of enhancing our personal effectiveness by developing more positive relationships with others.

Learning to listen

Unfortunately, little emphasis is placed on listening as a developed skill. In our society, a much greater value is typically placed on the ability to express ourselves. The result is that we produce good talkers, but poor listeners. In domains such as leadership and sales, the consequences of this can be serious.

Both Goleman and Covey suggest that the problem is not insoluble. It starts by recognizing that the problem exists, and going from there.  Although some people are better listeners by nature than others, those who wish to sharpen up their emotional intelligence can do so. And both of the above authors have developed effective programs that can help those who are sincere in wanting to improve.

The role of self-awareness

The capacity for self-awareness— the ability to see yourself as others see you is one of the most useful abilities that human beings have. Self-awareness should not be confused with self-centeredness. The former helps us to correct and improve ourselves, while the latter does no such thing.

Self-awareness helps us to see what we might need to know but don’t, while self-centeredness leads us to believe we already know it all. Both Covey and Goleman emphasize the importance of developing ways of increasing our self awareness as crucial for improving our personal effectiveness.

Motivation is the key

Virtually anyone who is truly motivated to improve their capacity for empathic listening can, if they are willing to suspend judgment and take serious stock of themselves. Numerous assessments of empathy are available, and those interested in increasing their awareness of where they stand regarding this ability can do so without a lot of trouble or expense.

I use a number of such assessments in my work with business executives and salespeople, and find such things invaluable tools for my clients. Much in the way that athletes use videos of themselves in action to correct and improve their performances, people in business can use the results of various instruments to improve their awareness of their styles of dealing with others.

The catch is, you have to want the truth. And in a world in which defensiveness and narcissism abound, many folks go to great pains to avoid any unpleasant truths about themselves.

But given the linkage between empathic listening and success in business, anyone truly interested in being the best they can be will humble themselves and ask some serious questions about how and in what areas they can improve. 

The impetus to do so is not some vague philosophical notion— as the research on emotional intelligence shows, the rewards can be measured in dollars and cents. And in business, it’s the bottom line that counts.