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Management by Coaching

Are you an 18-second boss?

Perfecting your listening skills

By Kimberly Paterson, CEC

When you are asking an employee for information about something going on in your business, how long does it take before you interrupt? If you are like most bosses, research shows that it will take you all of 18 seconds to interrupt and start talking.

Listening is challenging for bosses. Most tend to be aggressive, and they are often better talkers than they are listeners. That said, listening is one of the most important skills a leader can have. The bad news is that it is one of the least developed. Most of us, leaders included, significantly overestimate their listening skills. Studies show that immediately after listening to a 10-minute oral presentation, the typical listener hears, understands and retains only 50% of what is said. Within 48 hours, that drops off another 50%. That means we retain a scant 25% of what someone says to us.

The barriers that get in our way

• We think four times faster than we speak—Most people speak at the rate of about 125 words per minute, but we have the mental capacity to understand someone speaking at 400 words per minute. This difference between speaking speed and thought speed means that when we listen to the average speaker, we're using only 25% of our mental capacity. We still have 75% of our mental capacity with which to do something else. So, our minds will wander and we lose focus on what is being said.

• Inner dialogue—When we're supposed to be listening, we're often engaged in a conversation with ourselves. What should I say next? Can you believe she said that? What's he going to ask me now? How am I going to rebut that argument? We want to appear smart, and as a result we often get ahead of the topic and miss vital information.

• Bombarded with information— We're assaulted with information every day. Survival in the information age often means shutting ourselves off from the onslaught. We become skilled at selective listening and closing down when we think we've heard enough. While these defense mechanisms serve us well in some situations, they are hard to turn off when we really need to listen.

• Our own filter—We all have an invisible filter through which information must pass. The filter is constructed from our beliefs about the world, the preconceived notions we have about others, our fears, expectations and our life experience. Every piece of communication is subconsciously processed through our filter. What gets through is often more of a reflection of our own thoughts than the other person's. For example, if we believe all clients buy based on price, we hear the client's concerns about cost but miss the comment that reveals the element of fear about choosing a cheaper policy and not being covered.

• Focus on the facts—It is the way we've been trained to listen from the time we were children. Learn the facts and pass the test. As a result, too many of us concentrate on the facts and miss the subtle clues that often reveal the real story. Let's say you're meeting with your commercial lines department manager. She's reporting results for last quarter. You are jotting down the numbers to share with your two partners and you miss the slightly raised eyebrows as she states the new business number. She has a gut feeling the numbers are wrong but is hesitant to open up a can of worms. You are focused on the fact that new business is up 5% but the real question is if the number is even right.

• The need for control—For many leaders, listening is a passive, compliant act—something that other people do, but not us. We believe that talk is power; when we have "the floor" we are in control. Ironically, the reverse is often true. The true power lies in learning. We can't learn if we're the one doing all the talking.

• Impatience—Life moves at an accelerated pace these days. Time is money and multi-tasking is the norm. Skilled listening requires our total concentration. Most of us find it terribly painful to fully concentrate on a single task for any length of time. We're used to getting our information in sound bites, but that is not how most people talk. It takes time, effort and patience to sort through the noise in a conversation and get to the real message.

The payoff

Think about it. When you talk to people, how often do they give you 100% of their attention, care about what you are saying and really understand you? If you are like most people, the answer is not often. Good listeners are a rarity. Being a good listener increases your personal magnetism and pays dividends in a number of important ways:

Higher productivity—Missed signals, misunderstandings and mistakes that result from partial listening cost businesses billions in time, money and lost opportunity. Good listening dramatically increases productivity.

Better relationships—Persons who feel listened to feel valued and respected. Rapport improves, and the level of trust increases.

Increased insight—The way you listen makes a huge difference in the quality of information you receive. The better listener you are, the more likely people are to open up to you.

More empowered people—If you encourage people to explain their problems and start working through the situation out loud—rather than give advice—most people can find their own solutions.

The seven habits of highly effective listeners

Effective listening is an active not a passive process. Good listeners are like good catchers; they give their speakers a target. They position their body in a way that shows they are receptive. They angle their face toward the speaker, make eye contact and maintain an open body position with uncrossed arms. They send signals that show their interest and understanding and when they want more information.

You can significantly improve the quality of listening by adopting these seven habits:

1. Set a goal for the conversation—Do you want to build rapport, clarify an issue or give someone a chance to vent or learn something? Being clear in your mind about what you want to get out of the conversation will help you listen more productively.

2. If it is important, make it face to face—What is most telling in a person's communication is body language. Our gestures, facial expressions and body positioning account for 55% of our communication, whereas tone counts for 38% and words a mere 7%. That means if you are relying on e-mail, you're missing 93% of what a person is communicating.

3. Put yourself in the other person's shoes—When you see things from the other person's perspective, you're more empathetic, less judgmental and better able to understand the motivations behind what the person is saying.

4. Listen for more than content—A person's words don't really tell the full story. Many times people themselves aren't really clear on what they are thinking or feeling. Even when they are clear in their minds, they may have difficulty putting it into words. Good listeners look beyond the words and pay close attention to verbal and visual clues. They listen carefully for tone, including clues like the speaker's level of confidence or commitment and the particular words the person emphasizes. They look for dissonance between the speaker's words and his or her body language.

5. Stay present—Avoid multi-tasking when you are listening. We think people don't notice the subtle glances at our iPhones during a meeting or the muffled tapping on computer keyboard in the midst of a conference call—but they do. Even if you think you can get away with it, assume as a general rule that people notice when you are not listening or are pretending to listen.

6. Hear people out—Wait until they finish making their points before you speak. Don't interrupt, even to agree with them, and don't jump in with your own suggestions before they explain what they have already done, plan to do, or have thought about doing. This includes being aware enough to stop yourself from: making critical or judgmental faces or sounds, trying to "fix" their problem with a quick suggestion, interrogating them to make them answer a question you have about their issue, trying to convince them things aren't so bad or telling them how you would handle the situation.

All of these responses interrupt what they are saying and may change the direction of the conversation before they have an opportunity to get to their point. Whether they know it or not, the first thing people bring up when they have something to say isn't always the central point they will eventually make. Listening carefully for a while gives the speaker and the listener a chance to develop an understanding about what the real issue is.

7. Recap—Highly skilled listeners practice and become good at recapping both the facts and the emotional drift of the speaker in a few brief words. Effective recapping—not just parroting back their words—makes the speaker feel heard and ensures that you're getting the right message. Let's say Trina, your marketing person, is talking to you about an account she is trying to place for you. She's telling you she's had extensive conversations with all your key carriers, submitted all of the applications and is hoping she can get the premium down 15%. You hear the slight hesitation in her voice when she says "hoping." You respond: "Sounds like you've been working hard on this but you have some doubts about the outcome." By recapping, you're showing her that you get the fact that she's worked hard on this and that you are sensing her feelings of uncertainty about the outcome. This gives you the opportunity to see if you're reading her right and, if so, to explore her concerns.

Building your skills

Being a good listener is not an ability we are born with; it is a learned skill that develops over time. Like playing the piano, perfecting a golf swing or running a marathon, it takes desire, self-discipline and practice. But it is well worth the effort.

Leaders who are skilled listeners generate respect, rapport and trust with their colleagues. They enjoy greater teamwork and productivity, fewer conflicts and errors, better customer relationships and more engaged employees.

A skilled listener or an 18-second boss—which are you?

The author

Kimberly Paterson is a business and Certified Energy Leadership Coach. She is president of CIM (, where she works with insurance organizations to build the vision, strategy, customer insight and leadership skills to energize people and achieve outstanding results. She can be reached at


If you are relying on e-mail, you're missing 93% of what a person is communicating.











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