In the 1970s, IBM ran an experiment, in which, instead of talking to doctors, patients talked to robots. IBM wanted to find out which was the more rewarding experience. The answer was: the robots. Why? Because the robots had--or the patients imagined that they had--all the time in the world.
Although it's well established that how well and how long doctors listen to patients is highly correlated to treatment outcomes, listening remains a deeply unappreciated and under-developed skill. Everyone wants to learn how to become better speakers; few invest much time or effort in becoming great listeners. Listening feels and looks passive. In most organizations, status is achieved through action.
And yet, just as in medicine, if you listen well, you'll know more, see more, understand more. At General Electric, Jeff Immelt has included what he calls "humble listening" as one of the most important leadership characteristics.
So how can you learn to listen better?
Research by psychologist Jackie Andrade suggests that doodling helps you retain information. My own view is that it also acts as a healthy restraint on intervention. Whichever is the more convincing explanation, try it.
2. Take notes.
These days, you shouldn't have to write down details. They can be emailed to you later. But take notes about questions that occur to you, or salient points you want to reflect on afterwards. If you can do that, then you are actively listening and responding internally to what is being said. That means you are engaged and more likely to have your own thinking informed or provoked. Ram Charan notes that former AlliedSignal CEO Larry Bossidy took notes on one side of a piece of paper and his comments on the other. Whatever your style, the simple act of note-taking will make you listen harder.
3. Pay attention to the subtext.
Almost any discussion or argument has a vast subtext. The implied meanings are often much deeper than the ostensible ones. Listen for those. Ask yourself: What is not being said here? What assumptions underlie this discussion? What topic is being avoided?
4. Listen for the need.
Many conversations and meetings explore plans and next steps. Listen instead for what the participants need. Is it reassurance? More data? More resources? Don't look for the answer. Listen to the emotion, and try to identify what the speakers need to best move forward.
Pat Chapman-Pincher, who mentors CEOs, told me the IBM story. As you might expect, she's an excellent listener, highly attuned to the text and the subtext of what's being said. That doesn't mean she is silent. It means that, when she speaks, everyone listens.