Ask people if they're good drivers, and an impossible 90 percent or so will tell you they're above average behind the wheel. Ask people if they're good listeners and you'll hear a similar level of unrealistic optimism.

But according to research, most of us are actually pretty terrible at really hearing and retaining what others say to us. One large study, for instance, found the average person immediately forgets about half of the information he or she hears. Another showed 25 percent of leaders had serious problems with listening.

No wonder businesses miss out on so many good ideas and suffer from so much miscommunication -- all too often what colleagues say to each other literally goes in one ear and out the other. And that's not just a practical problem for information sharing and coordination. It's also hugely damaging to morale.

"When employees feel listened to, they are less likely to feel emotionally exhausted and less likely to quit their job. They are also more likely to trust -- and like -- their bosses, and feel committed to them," explains Yale business professor Marissa Kind in a recent Wall Street Journal article. "Listening can be a powerful motivator."

Listening, then, is actually a rare and highly valuable skill for leaders and a subtle but powerful way to set yourself apart from the competition.

How to listen without an agenda

This epidemic of bad listening is even more worrisome because it's unnecessary. Learning the basics of good listening -- remaining focused and present, avoiding interruptions, reflecting back what the other person is saying -- isn't terribly difficult. The internet is littered with helpful how-tos that can instantly improve your listening skills.

But getting better at listening might be even easier than mastering a list of tips and tricks. According to King, you can radically improve your leadership skills today by asking just one dead simple question that will show your team you are truly listening to them. Asking it, she warns, can be uncomfortable, but the rewards definitely outweigh a moment or two of discomfort. Here it is (emphasis mine):

In the workplace, we rarely listen--truly listen--without providing advice or feedback or chiming in with our own story. Employees frequently need to simply be heard--they don't want unsolicited advice. In sessions on team building for executives, I ask participants to spend just two minutes listening to their colleague respond to the simple question, "What is it like to be you today?" without any form of interruption. At first, this is usually met with awkward laughter. Once we move past the uncomfortableness, I occasionally see tears, frequently see teammates form an instant connection, and repeatedly hear the experience described as cathartic. This what JetBlue Chairman Joel Peterson calls "listening without an agenda" and believes is an essential element in building trust.

Would you be willing to give this exercise in radical listening a try at your company?

Published on: Aug 28, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.