What Science Says: Listen Carefully

What Science Says: Listen Carefully

I was recently in an organization where they said goodbye to Factory manager“He didn’t listen,” HR colleagues said. “Not to us, but not to the employees either. During the work meeting, he spent more time on his cell phone than anything else.”

What does science say?

It is difficult to overstate the effects of high-quality listening in an organization. Employees who have a manager who listens well do more than expected. Colleagues who listen carefully to each other help each other more, generate more original ideas, and adapt more easily. Customers of vendors who are listened to carefully are more satisfied with the service. Patients of doctors who listen well are more satisfied with their care. An organization where employees feel they are being listened to has lower turnover, fewer industrial accidents, and fewer lawsuits.

Well-being also increases with good listening, whether to the speaker or the listener. In a particularly interesting experiment in a British prison, it was found that prisoners who volunteered to be listening buddies had a greater increase in well-being than fellow prisoners who needed a listening ear.

How did this happen?

Because “an accidental experience of chemistry and high-quality communication” arises between speaker and listener (Kluger & Itchakov, 2022, p. 136). When a speaker feels that he or she is being listened to carefully, he or she dares to take more risks and say more things. This in turn stimulates the listener’s attention, making him or her listen better. And so the dance goes on and on. This allows the speaker to reveal more and sometimes discover perspectives within himself or herself that he or she had not been aware of. For example, the researchers saw how speakers themselves would look for the pros and cons of their own attitudes and prejudices.

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On a deeper level, the boundaries of the “self” are relaxed. The speaker doesn’t have to defend themselves, so they can safely explore and question ideas. Conflicting ideas can coexist safely, and an idea that doesn’t fit into the bigger picture is an interesting one. Critical comments aren’t meant to be offensive, but rather as opportunities to gain more knowledge. Much happens to the listener, too: they feel a boost in self-confidence and competence during high-quality listening, and they feel meaningful and empowered. Needless to say, they both also feel a great deal of connection during all of this.

Be sure to watch this beautiful excerpt (How to Listen with Empathy; Thich Nhat Hanh and Oprah Winfrey – 4 Mantras (youtube.com)) Where Thich Nath Hanh explains how to listen well, and Oprah Winfrey puts it into practice.

So why don’t we do this more often?

Good listening naturally costs the listener energy. In the meantime, you can’t do or think about anything else and you have to actively ignore various distractions (about yourself or your environment). You also have to suppress: your tendency to take someone else’s place. For example, someone starts talking about her difficult boss, and you think: “Oh, yes, another story about a demanding boss.” Since you immediately activate the “demanding boss” category in your head, you will hear mainly those things that fit in with it. And you will miss things that don’t fit in with you. A hidden admiration for the boss, for example.

Or maybe you want to say something yourself. We often listen primarily to gather information in order to immediately convince our conversation partner of our own arguments. In a business context, power can also play a role. Good listening reduces the power distance between speaker and listener. Not everyone in a position of dominance wants to do this. (Kluger et al.) Finally, high-quality listening also involves risk; you may need to qualify your point of view, admit that your idea doesn’t solve everything, or even admit that you were wrong.

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What can we do as HR and managers?

Make sure to make time for the conversation, of course. But fortunately, research also reveals some less obvious tips:

  • Think like a scientist during the conversation: be curious, seek out as much information as possible, and be careful to disprove your idea (= null hypothesis).
  • After the conversation, ask yourself what surprised you. By looking for that “wow” experience, you gradually learn to listen with a more open mind and suppress your tendency to hear what essentially confirms your idea.
  • Ask the speaker to give feedback afterwards: “Did I listen carefully? Did you feel heard and seen? How can I listen better?” (By the way, this is also recommended for teenage children.)

Since you will soon face the question of who will represent the employer in the works council and the prevention and protection committee at work: choose the best listeners.

References

Gilligan, C., & Eddy, J. (2021). The Listening Handbook: Replacing Judgment with Curiosity. Qualitative Psychology 8:141

Grant, A. (2021). Think Again. Viking Publishing.

Indovina K, Keniston A, Reid M, Sachs K, Zheng C, et al. (2016). Real-time patient experience surveys of hospitalized medical patients. J. Hosp.Med. 11:251–56

Kluger, A. N., & Itzchakoff, G. (2022). The Power of Listening at Work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, Issue 9. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-012420-091013

Perrin C, Blagden N (2014). Assembling meaning, purpose, and opportunities for change “drop by drop”: The impact of listening in prison. Psychol Crim Law 20:902–20

Yip, J., & Fisher, C. M. (2022). Listening in organizations: A brief survey and future agenda. Annals of the Academy of Management, 16, 657–679.

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