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Commentary: Bosses, listen first and you might learn something

Of all the management techniques, few are as powerful as curious conversation.

Curious listening can allow a meeting to reach more productive outcomes and avert disaster in the workplace, says the author.

Curious listening can allow a meeting to reach more productive outcomes and avert disaster in the workplace, says the author.

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Of all the management techniques, few are as powerful as curious conversation.

If one of your staff tells you how their job is going, or how they think it should change, or what the organisation should be doing differently, say “tell me more” and ask some follow-up questions. 

It has an instant effect. 

There may be some initial wariness, especially if people aren’t used to having these sorts of chats with their boss. But after that they often widen their eyes, or give an acknowledging nod, and open up. If you haven’t done it, give it a go. It’s magic.

Why does it work? Because people feel listened to. They feel they matter. 

You can achieve this, too, by repeating whatever they have just told you. Psychologists call it “reflecting back”. 

A 2009 study assessing randomised control trials of therapy sessions in the US and Norway found that of all the techniques counsellors attempted — including confrontation, questioning and offering support — “the therapist listening carefully and reflecting back what the patient said” was the most effective. 

The “listening carefully” part is vital. People know when you are only going through the motions.

Some writers have been telling business leaders this for years. 

Stephen Covey wrote about empathetic listening in his 1989 book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman wrote that knowing how to listen was an essential component of a leader’s emotional intelligence.

Why don’t leaders listen? Partly because, as Covey wrote, they are thinking about what they are going to say next. And partly because listening is not an attribute many leaders think is important. 

They think leaders should lead and set out a vision. They’re at the top because they have the answers. 

Those who educate leaders often don’t think listening is important either. A 2015 study of US undergraduate business programmes found that 76 per cent included oral presentation and 22 per cent some aspect of conversation. Just 11 per cent focused on listening.

You can learn the techniques of listening — reflecting back, asking questions — but there is more to it than that. You need to believe your teams have interesting insights. 

Luckily, they are bound to have them. They do their jobs every day, and know them better than anyone else. If they coordinate supplies, they know the suppliers. If they deal with customers, they learn what impresses or upsets them.

But your people don’t always know you are interested in their views. This can have a pernicious knock-on effect: they may lose interest in their insights themselves, or disengage from work altogether. Why bother if it makes no difference?

If you listen and ask interested questions, you may decide to do what your staff thinks you should do — or you may conclude you need to do something else, or nothing. Your employees may not be pleased, but at least they have been heard.

The same applies to chairing a meeting. 

You are far more likely to reach a productive outcome if you spend the first part just listening, encouraging others to talk. 

As people share their thoughts, you can begin to see the ways different groups are thinking. You can use the same listening techniques with each group: reflecting back, asking for more information. 

As the meeting moves on, you can summarise different points of view. You need to do this in good faith, showing that you have understood not just people’s words, but the feelings behind them.

After that, you can announce your decision: for all the listening, to lead is still to decide. Those who argued against your choice at least know you took their views into account, and are more likely to go along cooperatively with your course of action.

Curious listening can also avert disaster. 

When I asked management experts why they thought no one had spoken up inside Silicon Valley Bank before it collapsed, or at JPMorgan Chase when it kept Jeffrey Epstein as a client, they said it was because there wasn’t a culture of voicing doubt. 

People thought speaking up would make them stand out and leave them vulnerable to victimisation.

If, as a leader, you are known for eliciting opinions and engaging with them, people are more likely to bring looming trouble to your attention. 

Having those “so what you are saying” or “tell me a bit more” conversations not only makes for a more engaged workforce. It could save your organisation — and your leadership reputation.


Michael Skapinker is an FT contributing editor. He was an FT reporter, senior editor and award-winning columnist for 34 years. Among the positions he held were FT Weekend editor and management editor.

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