#515  from Innovative Leader Volume 10, Number 2          February 2001

Positive Influence by Effective Listening
by Madelyn Burley-Allen, Ph.D.

Dr. Burley-Allen is President of Dynamics of Human Behavior, a company that enhances individual potential and organizational effectiveness (phone 512-847-0595; dhb@winberley-tx.com; www.dynamics-hb.com).  She is author of Listening: The Forgotten Skill (John Wiley, New York, 2nd ed. 1999).

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 to them.

Most Important Attribute

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.

Employees 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 information.
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 communication.

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 inefficiently.

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 opportunities.

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 haphazardly.

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.

Level 1

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 discussion.  This lessens the ability to listen effectively.

Level 2

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 in words,
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 being missed.

Level 3

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.

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