My Life System #98: Curious Listening

 I like it very much when I discover a phrase that captures a habit or behaviour that I engage in. So it was when I came across an article in Financial Times entitled “Listen and you might learn something.”

Of all the management techniques, few are as powerful as curious conversation. If one of your staff tells you how their job is going, or how they think it should change, or what the organisation should be doing differently, say “tell me more” and ask some follow-up questions. It has an instant effect. There may be some initial wariness, especially if people aren’t used to having these sorts of chats with their boss. But after that they often widen their eyes, or give an acknowledging nod, and open up. If you haven’t done it, give it a go. It’s magic.

Why does it work? Because people feel listened to. They feel they matter. You can achieve this, too, by repeating whatever they have just told you. Psychologists call it “reflecting back”. A 2009 study assessing randomised control trials of therapy sessions in the US and Norway found that of all the techniques counsellors attempted — including confrontation, questioning and offering support — “the therapist listening carefully and reflecting back what the patient said” was the most effective. The “listening carefully” part is vital. People know when you are only going through the motions.”

… If, as a leader, you are known for eliciting opinions and engaging with them, people are more likely to bring looming trouble to your attention. Having those “so what you are saying” or “tell me a bit more” conversations not only makes for a more engaged workforce. It could save your organisation — and your leadership reputation.

In the article there was a phrase I liked: curious listening. Both the words are very powerful: curious as reflected in the asking of open-ended questions, and listening to learn. It is what I try to do when I meet with Netcore staff or with customers and prospects. The words and phrases they use are very good teaching moments. I make careful notes when listening to stay focused and share learnings with colleagues for next actions. In doing so, I have to resist the urge to respond to critical feedback. Once I start speaking, there is an ever present danger that the other person will simply clam up and not “speak truth to power”.

There is a very good graphic I found on curious listening at Masterpiece Leader which captures the essence:

Anna Kmetova has advice for curious listening:

  1. Listen with an open mind: Each person is unique, and just like us, they have their own, unique qualities, beliefs and experiences. Can you give them space to fully express themselves and make sure you understand?
  2. Ask powerful questions: Open and short questions signify the minimum of assumptions and offer maximum space for the other to explain…Ask follow-up questions such as “How do you see it”, “What is your real challenge here” and let them find their own solution.
  3. Listen for what is NOT said: Can you tell that there is a discrepancy between the body posture of your colleague and their words? Can you tell that something truly matters to them just by the excitement you see on their face when they talk about something?

Try “curious listening” the next time you are in a 1:1 meeting, and then reflect on the conversation. Isn’t this a much better approach?

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.