How to Listen?

The experience recalled a conversation I had a few years ago with a CEO. He confessed to me that if he could improve any one thing, it would be his listening skills. I remember pointing him to an old HBR article (1957, to be exact) by Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard Stevens called “Listening to People.”

The authors — who conducted several in-depth studies on listening skills — offered some tips for what they call “efficient listening,” by which they mean that the listener doesn’t wander off onto mental side-roads while someone else is speaking. They found that “good listeners regularly engage in four mental activities, each geared to the oral discourse and taking place concurrently with that oral discourse.” Those four processes are:

  1. The listener thinks ahead of the talker, trying to anticipate what the oral discourse is leading to and what conclusions will be drawn from the words spoken at the moment.
  2. The listener weighs the evidence used by the talker to support the points that he makes. “Is this evidence valid?” the listener asks himself. “Is it the complete evidence?”
  3. Periodically the listener reviews and mentally summarizes the points of the talk completed thus far.
  4. Throughout the talk, the listener “listens between the lines” in search of meaning that is not necessarily put into spoken words. He pays attention to nonverbal communication (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice) to see if it adds meaning to the spoken words. He asks himself, “Is the talker purposely skirting some area of the subject? Why is he doing so?”

via Is Listening an Endangered Skill? – HBR Editors’ Blog – Harvard Business Review.