Are you really hearing what your team is saying?

Listening more attentively improves team performance and enhances creativity. And the good news is that listening is something you can learn. Three valuable pieces of advice.

Listening is part and parcel of new management, just as pine trees are part and parcel of December. The environment in which organizations operate is becoming ever-more complicated and they have to be able to respond quickly to new challenges.

Input from every team member is needed, but they will not speak up if they feel that they are not being listened to. The more responsibility is placed with the autonomous professionals in an organization, the more important it becomes that they listen to each other, and thereby avoid working at cross purposes.

The importance of listening to your team

Someone listening at a superficial level will only hear what they expect to hear, and will often miss the deeper significance or innovative ideas. The ability to listen therefore has an important role in the success of teams. A recent study by Google has produced compelling evidence for this.

The purpose of Google’s research was to establish which characteristics make one team successful, and the other not. The company, which collects large quantities of data from its employees, looked at possible factors such as team composition and mutual relationships, among 180 teams.

Regardless of what type of team was involved, there was one factor that was found to be decisive – psychological security. That is, that the team members were given the space to air their opinions, and that their opinions were treated with respect. Teams whose members listen to each other perform better, by definition.

Given the importance of listening, it is regrettable that we usually do not take the trouble to master it. The following tips could be useful.

1. Don’t put forward your own solutions straight away

“It is often very difficult to feel affinity with someone else’s reference framework,” says Ellen Giebels. She is a professor of the psychology of conflict, risk, and safety at the University of Twente; her activities include the training of police negotiators. “One of the first things we learn is not to think in terms of solutions, which is what you are used to doing in police work, but first to listen to and empathize with the viewpoint of the other party.” By putting forward solutions yourself straight away, you are inhibiting the other person from giving their opinion. And even if they do give their opinion, you will not appreciate it for what it is because you are interpreting it on the basis of your own solution.

Not putting forward solutions “sounds simple but is terribly difficult,” says Giebels. “It is often an automatic reflex to come up with a solution immediately.” What we need to learn is to view something from the other person’s perspective. Some people do that mentally, by embracing the thoughts and ideas of the other person. Others use intuition or empathy – they sense what the other party is feeling. “The trick,” says Giebels, “is to embrace the thoughts and ideas of the other person, but without abandoning your own position. There has to be a balance.”

2. Give feedback

American communications researcher Graham Bodie ran an experiment in which he had people retrospectively assess conversations they had had about emotionally charged subjects. Those conversations in which the discussion partner fed back information using non-verbal signals like nodding and making eye contact were rated more highly. If verbal feedback was given, in the form of a summary or additional questions, for example, the assessment was better still. Anyone learning to listen better should forget all about taking a passive attitude. Feedback provides instant information about the question of whether what is heard is the same as what is meant. Verbal feedback is perfectly possible during a telephone conversation, so the telephone is an excellent method for meaningful discussions, according to Bodie.

3. Develop your skills through your silent presence

Otto Scharmer, who is known for his Theory U, distinguishes four different levels of listening: downloading (in which you are primarily seeking affirmation), actual listening (where existing ideas are supplemented), empathic listening (where you are receptive to the other party), and generative listening (where you listen using your intuition). According to Scharmer, this creates a certain added value – the interaction leads to something new because both parties respond to each other on the basis of trust, without holding on to their convictions and cynicism. This means that generative listening releases more creativity and wisdom.

Sacha Kluvers studied under Scharmer in the US. At De Baak, leaders receive training in listening skills, among other things. This involves the use of the ‘dialog walk’. Kluvers explains, “The intention is to go on a walk together in order to practice listening. If you can learn that, you will acquire a new way of listening.” During these walks, the idea is to listen to the other party with an open mind, but without responding. “What you learn,” says Kluvers, “is to put your own convictions to one side and to be a silent presence. The only purpose of this is to see and hear the other person, literally and figuratively.” This exercise should preferably take place in the peace and quiet of the countryside.

The power of the exercise is that you learn to better absorb what the other person has said. Some remarkable results are often achieved in consequence, says Kluvers. “The participants on the course notice that they gain different insights with their employees. In many cases, they are amazed at the creativity and wisdom that their employees possess, which they had not previously noticed.” Indeed, some managers discover that they do not have to work as hard, says Kluvers, “because they learn to manage on the basis of calmness and trust. And efficiency improves, all the while.”

Source: This article is part of the ‘Nieuw Leiderschap’ file on This file is from De Baak.

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