Listening, you might think, isn't an Olympic sport. All you need to excel at it is shut your mouth, open you ears, and occasionally encourage the speaker with a head nod or 'uh-huh.' If you really want to master ninja-level listening, you might even mirror back what the person is telling you in your own words.

In the popular conception, in other words, listening is both straightforward and passive. But on this point, science and common sense actually don't agree.

That's according to a research conducted by leadership consultancy Zenger/Folkman and reported on the HBR blogs that looked at the behavior of 3,492 managers enrolled in a program to improve their coaching skills. The participants were given 180 degree feedback to give the research team an accurate assessment of how others perceived their listening skills, and then the behavior of those who performed in the top five percent was minutely analyzed.

The best listeners aren't the quietest.

It turns out that listening well is a lot more than not talking. In fact, the simple ability not to talk over someone didn't place study subjects anywhere near the top of the listening ranks. So what did the managers need to do to qualify as truly awesome listeners? The research team laid out several key differences between average listeners and awesome ones:

Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. To the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions, but do so in a constructive way. Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to want additional information.

And that's not all that's required to level up your listening. Not only do good listeners ask clever, constructive questions, but they also encourage the speaker and made him or her feel safe. They also provide feedback and suggestions, though not ones delivered in an over hasty or combative manner.

To listen better, speak more.

The complete post from the researchers offers a five-level framework to help you take your own listening skills from adequate to awesome that starts with creating a safe space for conversation and continues to asking targeted questions without hijacking the conversation. Check it out for a blueprint to improve your own listening.

But the bottom line conclusion of the study is slightly surprising and totally useful: "We suspect that in being a good listener, most of us are more likely to stop short rather than go too far," write the researchers. That means that if you want your people to feel truly heard, chances are you need to talk more, not less.

Think of the people you love speaking with the most. What characteristics or behaviors make them so great to talk to?

Published on: Sep 12, 2016