What makes the difference between a conversation that goes nowhere and one that’s provocative, productive and mutually beneficial? It’s your ability to really listen, ask questions, and be fully present, something called power listening.
“Power listening—the art of probing and challenging the information garnered from others to improve its quality and quantity—is the key to building a knowledge base that generates fresh insights,” ~ Bernard T. Ferrari, author of Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All (Portfolio Hardcover, 2012).
It’s not easy learning to be a better listener. We think faster than we can hear. While we’re waiting for someone to finish their sentence, we’ve already figured out what they’re going to say.
So in the meantime, most of us are thinking about other things, like what we’re going to say next. But then we miss opportunities to challenge assumptions. And we lose focus.
Bernard T. Ferrari suggests four steps that form a good listening foundation:
- Show respect
- Keep quiet
- Challenge assumptions
- Maintain focus
In my previous post, I mentioned that the ability to really listen is the most overlooked and undervalued skill. We rarely practice doing it better. Here’s more about the last two steps, #3: Challenging assumptions and #4: Maintaining focus, both essential to building power listening skills.
- Challenge assumptions. Too many high-caliber professionals inadvertently act like know-it-alls, remaining closed to anything that undermines their beliefs. Good listeners seek to understand—and challenge—the assumptions that lie below the surface of every conversation. Holding onto these assumptions is the biggest roadblock to power listening.
It’s admittedly hard to scrutinize preconceived notions and shake up our thinking. We must be willing to reevaluate what we know and welcome what we don’t (or can’t) know. Shift your mind-set to embrace ambiguity and uncover what each conversation partner needs from the interaction.
- Maintain focus. Power listening requires you to help your conversation partner isolate the problem, issue or decision at hand. Discard extraneous details or emotions that interfere with homing in on what truly matters.
Create a focused, productive conversation by reducing external and internal background noise. Ask questions that highlight key issues and minimize the urge to stray from them.
Recognize that all conversations have intellectual and emotional components. It’s important to “decouple” the two, according to Ferrari, as several emotions are guaranteed to hinder communication:
- Resentment and envy
- Fear and feeling threatened
- Fatigue and frustration
- Positive emotions and overexcitement
As with anger and fear, excitement can also distract you from asking the right questions and challenging underlying assumptions.
“The most exciting part is that, once you get good at listening, you will be able to do it easily, almost effortlessly, without even thinking about it,” Ferrari writes.
Practice his four power-listening steps to become the kind of listener others seek as a conversation partner. You’ll build valuable relationships, become more informed, make better decisions and come up with new innovative ideas.