The Art & Science of Listening - McKinsey

Many executives take listening skills for granted and focus instead on learning how to articulate and present their own views more effectively. This approach is misguided.


Good listening—the active and disciplined activity of probing and challenging the information garnered from others to improve its quality and quantity—is the key to building a base of knowledge that generates fresh insights and ideas. Put more strongly, good listening, can often mean the difference between success and failure in business ventures. Listening is a valuable skill that most executives spend little time cultivating.


Three kinds of behavior can improve your own listening skills and even those of your organization:

1. Show respect

Being respectful, it’s important to note, doesn’t mean to avoid asking tough questions. Good listeners routinely ask them to uncover the information they need to help make better decisions. The goal is ensuring the free and open flow of information and ideas.

2. Keep quiet

The 80/20 rule relates to listening too and your conversation partner should be speaking 80 percent of the time. Moreover, seek to make your speaking time count by spending as much of it as possible posing questions rather than trying to have your own say.


As you improve your ability to stay quiet, you’ll probably begin to use silence more effectively. When we remain silent, we also improve the odds that we’ll spot nonverbal cues we might have missed otherwise.

3. Challenge assumptions

Good listeners seek to understand—and challenge—the assumptions that lie below the surface of every conversation.


Many executives struggle as listeners because they never think to relax their assumptions and open themselves to the possibilities that can be drawn from conversations with others. Many executives will have to undergo a mind-set shift—toward an embrace of ambiguity and a quest to uncover “what we both need to get from this interaction so that we can come out smarter.”


A helpful technique is to deliberately alter a single fact or assumption to see how that changes his team’s approach to a problem. This technique can help senior executives of all stripes step back and refresh their thinking. In a planning session. For example, you might ask, “We’re assuming a 10 percent attrition rate in our customer base. What if that rate was 20 percent? How would our strategy change? What if it was 50 percent?” Once it’s understood that the discussion has moved into the realm of the hypothetical, where people can challenge any underlying assumptions without risk, the creative juices really begin to flow.


To read the complete article from McKinsey, please click here.

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