Leader Volume 10, Number 2
Influence by Effective Listening
by Madelyn Burley-Allen, Ph.D.
Burley-Allen is President of Dynamics of Human Behavior, a company
that enhances individual potential and organizational
effectiveness (phone 512-847-0595; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.dynamics-hb.com).
She is author of Listening: The Forgotten Skill (John Wiley, New York, 2nd
Positive influence happens in a variety of forms between managers
and those they supervise. It surprises many managers to learn that
one of the most significant ways to influence others in a positive
way is by effectively listening to them.
"I was astonished! All I had to do was listen, and this
employee of mine worked through his own problem without me giving
a bit of advice."
Newly aware of his own listening patterns, this manager stopped
himself from jumping in with solutions when an employee began
sharing a problem. Instead, he listened quietly and occasionally
summarized what was being told. The employee came to his own
conclusions right in front of him. The manager realized how much
he had been interfering, by being too quick to give advice, with
his staff’s ability to build confidence. He was amazed that most
people just want him to listen
Listening to the individual is the most important attribute of an
effective manager. Managers who listen, earn employee’s respect
and loyalty. They discover important things about how the business
is going. One company hired an expensive management consultant to
find out why workers had low morale. The consultant began
searching for the cause of dissatisfaction using a method the
company's managers could have used themselves. He directly asked
the workers why they were unhappy--and listened to their answers.
frequently have excellent ideas about improving productivity of
the work environment. Managers who listen for these ideas solve
more problems than those who do not. These managers create a sense
of concern for their staff while receiving better-quality
The foreman of a large manufacturing plant called Jose, a
supervisor of a production line, into his office to explain plans
for a new way to assemble machinery. The foreman described how he
thought the procedure should be changed. Jose's only response was
silence and a frown. The foreman realized something was wrong and
sensed Jose might have something to say because of his non-verbal
So he said, "Jose, you've been in the department longer than
me. What's your reaction to my suggestion? I'm listening."
Jose paused, then began to speak. He realized his manager had
opened the door to communication and felt comfortable offering
suggestions from his years of experience.
As the two employees exchanged ideas, a mutual respect and trust
developed, along with a solution to the technical problems. While
listening, the manager, remained in complete control of the
situation. He was an active, not passive, listener.
A manager who was curious asked her secretary to keep track of the
time she spent listening on the telephone. She was shocked to
discover her company was paying her 35 percent of her salary, or
$18,000, for this function. Amazingly, on the average, people are
only about 25 percent efficient as listeners. With this efficiency
rate, about $13,500 is paid for time she spends listening
Why People Are Poor Listeners
When we think
about listening, we tend to assume it is basically the same as
hearing; this is a dangerous misconception because it leads us to
believe effective listening is instinctive. As a result, we make
little effort to learn, or develop listening skills, and
unknowingly neglect a vital communication function. Consequently,
we create unnecessary problems for ourselves and others:
misunderstanding, hurt feelings, confused instructions, loss of
important information, embarrassment, frustration, and lost
Listening involves a more sophisticated mental process than
hearing. It demands energy and discipline. Listening is most often
a learned skill. The first step is to realize that effective
listening is an active, not a passive process. A skilled listener
doesn’t just sit there and allow listening to happen
The belief that the power of the talker plays a major role in
communication is why many managers are poor listeners. In our
society talking is viewed as more important, with listening
categorized as only a supportive function.
Levels of Listening Model
Listening can be seen as a model that has three levels. They are
distinct categories into which people fall; they may overlap or
interchange depending on what is happening. As managers move from
level 3 to level 1, their potential for understanding, retaining
what is being said, awareness, responsiveness, creativity, and
effective communication increases. All managers listen at
different levels of efficiency throughout the day, as their
listening habits, their attitude toward listening, their mental
alertness, and physical health change.
At this level there is conscious attention, understanding,
awareness of the moment, respect and a spirit of cooperation. This
means managers will see things from the other person's point of
view, be empathetic to the person’s feelings, and thus avoid
internal distractions that interfere with effective listening.
They pay attention to the talker's total communication by
listening to content and the intent of what is being said; such
as, tone of voice, inflections, volume. A critical ingredient of
this level is the managers' attitude of mutual respect which helps
suspend negative personal labels and is non-intimidating. This
positive mindset promotes a communication process of inquiry and
informing rather than an advocating position of "know-it-
all." Summarizing and paraphrasing techniques will be applied
to clarify meaning and understanding.
Managers at this level handle difficult situations more
effectively because they know the importance of dealing with
others from a non-blaming attitude. Usually stress at this level
provides motivation, improves performance and excitement,
increases focused energy, and fosters mental alertness.
This mental alertness often results in improved decision making,
creativity, and memory. There is a greater ability to explore
alternatives and choose the best one. Managers at level 1 avoid
becoming preoccupied with their own internal dialogue that can
inhibit effective listening. They also are aware that conversation
requires a substantial amount of conscious processing because it
involves novelty. We are not sure what the other is going to say,
and we try to formulate unique responses appropriate to the
lessens the ability to listen effectively.
This level of listening is characterized as containing partial
awareness, being in and out of consciousness, listening to words
but not fully understanding the meaning of the message. Managers
at this level don't realize information is being missed. This
results in making little effort to understand the talker's intent
or to clarify for understanding.
Each person has their own meanings for words because they filter
them through their varied beliefs, knowledge, cultural upbringing,
education, and experience. As a result no two people have exactly
the same meaning for the same word or expression; meanings are not
meanings are in people.
Much is being communicated interpersonally that isn't verbalized.
Research shows that there are three factors that impact on the
outcome of effective communication: words (verbal), vocal (tone of
voice), and body language which include, facial expression, body
posture, gestures and eye contact. The relative impact is: words
7%, tone of voice 38% and body language 55%. When managers are
experiencing level 2 listening, they are mainly focusing on the
words. Much of what is not being communicated non-verbally is
This level has dangerous consequences. It’s an automatic
“tuned-out” mode. Internal distractions include daydreaming,
thinking about something else, self- dialogue, finding fault, and
negative feelings. Not much of what is said will be remembered.
Managers will experience concentration problems resulting in
difficulty in making appropriate decisions.
A major factor that contributes to level 3 is a blaming attitude
that perpetuates negative feelings of frustration, anger, worry,
impatience, and loss of humor. These factors cause stress which
then reduces alertness and creativity. Fatigue is often part of
this level: a feeling of not being up to par, loss of initiative,
increased indifference. Managers can become complacent about
getting the job done.
The following example illustrates the three levels. A manager
named David met with one of his key employees. "Carol,” he
said, "I have the feeling there's something that disturbs you
about our professional relationship." Carol took this
encouragement as an opportunity to explain that she felt he made
some very degrading comments to her a week ago.
Instead of reacting defensively, Dave listened to Carol's whole
explanation and acknowledged her feelings. "I appreciate you
telling me," he said. "I can see how you thought my
comments were a putdown."
"Yes", Carol remarked, "I was upset about it."
David listened to that, too, and expressed concern that Carol was
upset, adding, "I didn't intend it as a putdown."
This listening encounter proved a success because David stayed in
level 1 throughout the conversation. By doing so, he influenced
Carol in a positive way that encouraged Carol to feel comfortable
talking about her negative feelings. David's level 1 behavior
impacted Carol in such a way that she could respond to him at
level 1. A few days later, Carol was heard mentioning her rapport
with David as an example of a good working relationship.
Imagine what might have happened if David had reacted defensively
at level 3 after inviting Carol to discuss what was bothering her!
Often, when managers offer someone the opportunity to express his
or her feelings about their behavior, they feel attacked and find
it difficult to handle the feedback as David did. Usually managers
take what is being said personally, become defensive or even
verbally attack the person.
If David had responded at level 3 in a defensive manner to Carol's
expressed negative feelings, the conversation more than likely
would have ended with no resolution and increased alienation.
Defensive listening is a major barrier to effective communication
and problem solving because it perpetuates resistance, hostility,
and an argumentative atmosphere.
Listening to others gives managers the information needed.
Listening to themselves gives them the information to act in their
own best interests. As managers achieve self-awareness, they are
more able to choose their response rather than react
automatically. They would then respond to what is real, rather
than to emotions or misconceptions.
Information is power. Effective listeners are able to concentrate
and find the most valid information in whatever they listen to.
Effective listeners are powerful people that have positive
influence on others.