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A Listening Ecosystem

A Listening Ecosystem

The biggest communication problem is that we do not listen to understand, we listen to reply. -Nishan Panwar

As a communication consultant, I have the privilege of working with C-Suite leaders all over the world on their communication strategies. One core element of this is listening. Why listening?

First, we know that genuine listening over time builds trust. Trust is essential for business because, according to research by Stephen MR Covey and Douglas R. Conant for HBR:

Trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces...companies with high levels of trust beat the average annualized returns of the S&P 500 by a factor of three.

Second, listening affects decision-making. In an article posted in McKinsey Quarterly, Bernard Ferrari writes:

Good listening — the active and disciplined activity of probing and challenging the information garnered from others to improve its quality and quantity — is the key to building a base of knowledge that generates fresh insights and ideas. Put more strongly, good listening can often mean the difference between success and failure in business ventures. Listening is a valuable skill that most executives spend little time cultivating.

To help my clients practice the art of listening, I ask them to consider creating a "listening ecosystem." This is a culture where listening is the norm; it is expected and practiced. This starts at the top. The CEO and leaders set the tone.

Kevin Sharer, the former CEO and chairman of Amgen, the world's largest biotechnology company, sets an excellent example for us. In an article he co-authored in HBR called "Are You Really Listening?" he told us how he created "listening systems" in the C-Suite to promote listening. He believes that you have to build structures so that people know that you want to hear what they have to say.

This is what he did. He gave the SMT a regular survey about what they thought about his leadership style. Kevin's included:

  • "What am I doing that you want me to keep doing?"
  • "What are the things that I should stop doing or significantly modify?"
  • "What are the things that I should start doing a lot more of?"
  • "Is there anything else you want to tell me?"

To encourage candor, someone he trusted took all of the answers and combined them into one report. He then looked at this report and listened to it. He made necessary changes to meet the needs of his team. He also passed this report along for the board to review. (His peers thought he was crazy.)

The annual all-employee survey had the question: "What do you think of the job that Kevin is doing?" He learned that people viewed him as a distant leader. So, he began walking the halls and connecting with folks. Kevin also made his office look like a living room. He said:

I wanted to treat my direct reports as partners. This environment created equal conversation – and we could more easily talk about tough issues and important ideas.

If you are a CEO and want to create a culture of listening, here are a few more steps to consider.

[Related: Five Ways to Re-Engage Women in the Workforce]

Show respect.

The people that we work with often have the knowledge and desire to develop good solutions. When we can show them that we believe this and listen attentively, respect is formed. Part of being a good listener is drawing out information and rephrasing it to put it in a new light.

Example: I was working with the C-Suite of a medical service company. Their business team had come up with an excellent model of working with insurance companies to serve patients better. The board had approved the model, but it was not selling well. The problem was presented to the CEO, and after she listened to the business leaders, she asked a respectful leading question:

I hear that this is a great idea, and we haven't sold as many plans as you thought we would in the first quarter. Is that right?

The team leader said:

That is true. We have only sold half of our estimate. We think this model will be a win for our clients and for us, but it hasn't been selling.

When she was sure that the team leader was finished, the CEO said:

You seem certain that this is the model to use. It seems that insurance providers should be lining up to place orders. Assuming it's not the model that's off, what else are the insurance agents telling you about the product?

The leader replied:

They do not seem to understand what we offer.

The conversation continued, and the team realized that they needed a marketing plan and effective language to tell the sales team about the new model. They had been so excited about the business model that they didn't see the need to translate its utility to the sales team. It wasn't very clear to the sales team, so sales did not pursue it. Once this problem and solution were identified, this model did indeed sell well and ultimately change the projection of the company.

After careful listening and probing questions, the CEO helped the business team come up with their own solution. It is important to note that she approached this situation with curiosity. She asked tough questions in order to uncover what was going on – always putting respect at the forefront of her questions. The goal is to ensure the free and open flow of information and ideas.

[Related: Two Harsh Truths of Entrepreneurship]

Try to communicate curiosity instead of displeasure.

Here are some practical words to use when actively listening:

  • I wonder if the story I am creating in my mind is accurate.
  • Can you help me clarify and fill in more of the pieces?
  • I'm curious about…
  • Tell me more about…
  • I didn't experience it this way…
  • I'm wondering…
  • Could you help me understand?
  • Could you walk me through?
  • Tell me about your passion around this…
  • Tell me why this doesn't fit/work for you.
  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • Can you clarify?
  • What did you mean by….
  • I'm not sure I understand the context.
  • Tell me more about…
  • Here is what I am seeing…
  • Can you help me understand…
  • This is what I assume based on what I am seeing…

Listening requires practice and patience. When a leader is both a leader and an active listener at the same time, he or she will find out what they need to know about the organization, good ideas will surface all across the organization, and bad news can be addressed quickly. It all builds up to a culture of trust.

At Dart Studio, our passion is helping professionals and change leaders communicate well. Reach out if you want to discuss how to create powerful and effective communication that integrates empathy for the other.

[Related: Yes, You Have A Brand - Even If You Don’t Know It, Like It, Or Wish It Were Otherwise]


Heather Heefner is the owner of Dart Studio.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.


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