My friend Tom Peters, the American leadership guru and author of In Search of Excellence, has investigated how leaders & entrepreneurs communicate with customers and colleagues. His analysis was based on the findings of Harvard professor Jerome Groopman. 

Sadly, the results are somewhat troubling.

Groopman's work and Peters' work, one of the largest research studies on this topic, indicates that leaders across various industries, including doctors in the healthcare sector, interrupt their patients or employees within 18 seconds of conversation. This suggests that, in practice, leaders listen to talk rather than listen to listen. 

If we use the healthcare sector as an example, it is crucial that a doctor asks questions about the patient to understand them better. Patients don't necessarily apply all the correct technical terms to their ailment and therefore some things can be miscommunicated if not carefully listened to.

But after a five, ten or even fifteen-minute conversation the doctor will be able to figure out a great deal.

Similarly, to provide good leadership in sales and marketing it is necessary to understand what someone's saying to you before making your own suggestions. 

Nevertheless, figures suggest that seven out of eight leaders reading this article will statistically be '18-second bosses'. This means they generally respond with dismissive phrases like: "oh well, I have seen this before and here is what you should do," thereby pre-empting the issue before they even know what the problem is. 

These findings led Peters to conclude that the most important strength a startup can possess is not a strategic plan, but instead a commitment to strategically listen to all members of their organization. This can be achieved by speaking to employees as well as customers face to face.

The good news is that you can train yourself and your colleagues to become better listeners. I call it 'to listen louder' and here are three simple ways to get started:

  • Repeat a word someone says to you in your head. This simple technique will reinforce their message in your mind and help you to focus. 
  • Take time to show whoever you're speaking to that you are paying attention to them. You can do this by simply nodding your head or through appreciative words like 'okay' or 'aha'. This doesn't mean you necessarily agree with their statements, but together with your body language it indicates that you are interested in what they have to tell you.
  • Give the speaker feedback to reinforce that you are listening. You can repeat their statements in your own words to be sure that you've understood them correctly. For example: 'so what you're saying is...' Or you can ask questions to be sure you understand them, such as: 'what do you mean when you say...?'

These approaches aren't easy, but practice makes perfect - especially when it comes to listening louder!