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Skilled executives know it pays to listen

Published on Friday, 03 Dec 2010
HBC chief executive Sidney Yuen explains the principles of good listening at the ‘Listening Leaders’ workshop at the Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel.
Photo: May Tse

Expressing thoughts clearly is an integral part of business leadership, but the other half of the equation is listening and understanding what others wish to communicate.

According to Sidney Yuen, a certified trainer at the International Listening Leadership Institute (ILLI), the failure to listen means leaders reduce an important part of their learning potential, which can hurt their achievements. On the other hand, good listeners strengthen their skills as leaders because they are able to respond to the opinions and insights of others.

"One of the fastest ways to learn is to listen, but most people are much better at hearing themselves talk than they are listening to what others say. To listen well, you must stop talking and let others finish before making your statement," Yuen told the "Listening Leaders" workshop, co-organised by Classified Post and HBC.

Participants were encouraged to develop listening processes and skills, create self-awareness and explore techniques that could be applied in the workplace, home and social environment. Yuen also introduced techniques for remembering names and making conversations at business and social meetings more engaging.

He said that, to most employees, the fact their managers listened to them meant more than many leaders often imagined. Leaders who listened could also become more persuasive and effective just by listening correctly and understanding what is being communicated. There is a common tendency among people who rise up the corporate ladder to become distracted or too busy to listen to people around them.

"Listening and leadership go hand in hand, but it takes effort to listen attentively. A good listener is not only popular because they actually listen, they also tend to learn more because people share their ideas with them and let them know what is going on," Yuen said.

On a subconscious level, attentive listeners benefit from a better response because the speaker instinctively feels the listener is paying attention to what they have to say.

A survey by the ILLI revealed the average leader ignored, forgot or misunderstood at least 75 per cent of what he or she heard. Yuen said the significance of attentive listening went beyond common courtesy. It is, in fact, a fundamental quality required to achieve effective leadership. He said listening should focus on hearing attentively, not simply waiting for a person to finish talking to start speaking.

He said people should avoid anything not related to the listening process, such as using mobile devices for checking e-mails and sending text messages. Multitasking, such as reading documents or sending e-mail, also distracts from fully engaging with a speaker. This applies in ordinary conversation and talking on the telephone. "Attentive listening shows respect and helps the listener engage far more effectively with colleagues, subordinates and even friends and family members," said Yuen, who is also chairman and CEO of HBC.

He said the same principle applied to personal relationships. "If you watch a couple freshly dating, you will almost always see how attentive they are towards each other by their excellent listening skills and apparent caring. The same couple five years into a relationship are less likely to display the same level of listening."

He cited an example of a company that spent time on attracting customers, but made little effort to retain them by listening to their needs.

"Across nearly every sector, you see examples of companies not listening as well as they could and, as a result, they lose customers. Often companies set a customer satisfaction target level of 70 to 80 per cent, which means that a lot of work spent on attracting customers goes to waste. If more effort was made to listen to what customers say, the loyalty rate could be measurably improved," Yuen said. 

A firm that listens to its customers can energise the organisation and boost employee satisfaction. "It takes a mindset change to improve individual and company listening skills, and this can be easily identified. However, to know and not to do is not to know at all," he said.

Leaders keep their ears to the ground

Anyone can become a good listener and benefit from active engagement, which can help boost leadership skills. Sidney Yuen, a trainer at the International Listening Leadership Institute, believes the first step to improve listening skills involves using a framework.

"It usually feels more difficult than you would imagine, but as an exercise, try letting the other person do most of the talking," Yuen told participants at "The Listening Leaders" workshop, co-organised by Classified Post and HBC. "Active listening is listening purposefully with your focus on understanding what the speaker is trying to communicate.

"Often, there is the temptation to interrupt so you can tell the other person something you think is vitally important. Before you speak, ask yourself if it is really necessary."

Yuen also suggested conducting three-minute conversations during which the speaker would engage with the listener without using "I".

The aim of the exercise is to focus on the other person.

To improve listening skills, individuals must also identify and align purpose, embracing the idea that listening to others could be a powerful tool for getting information. At social gatherings, listen to how leaders in other organisations overcame challenges, allowing you to glean lessons that could be applied to your organisation.

"To find out if you are a good listener, ask work colleagues, friends and family," Yuen said. "Many people are surprised to discover they are not as good as they think."

He said hand-held communication devices may be one of the most significant business innovations of the past 20 years, but they also distract from effective listening.

"Reading or sending messages at the same time as you are supposed to be listening will not only compromise your ability to absorb what the other person is saying - it is simply extremely bad manners," Yuen said.


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