Wit & Wisdom

Game Changers & Tales of Triumph and Woe

Why I'm a listener

CJ Westerberg, September 22, 2012 11:34 AM


For most of my career, I was an awful listener
in almost every possible way.
I was arrogant throughout my 30s for sure--maybe into my early 40s.
My conversations were all about
some concept of intellectual winning
"I'm going to prove I'm smarter than you."

Why I'm a listener, Amgen's CEO, Kevin Sharer

Video Below plus
The Field Guide to Bad Listeners

by C.J. Westerberg

We seem to be doing more posts about the value of asking questions and listening, which seem to involve obvious (?) basic skills, but ones we may tend to forget about.  Yet if we don't model them well, how do we expect our own children to learn these skills?  Think of the problem-solving that could take place, IF:  policy-makers really listened to educators (boots on the ground, not in the clouds); administrators listened to teachers;  teachers listened to parents and students;  parents listened to teachers and their children, and students really knew how to listen.   

In this short video below, Why I'm a listener, Amgen's CEO, Kevin Sharer, talks about the epiphany that made him a better listener, and what lessons can be learned by leaders and organizations about listening.  You will also see that asking questions doesn't necessarily mean we are fully listening to the answers.  We also know when people are not really listening and how that makes us feel.  Via McKinsey Quarterly - while free, you need to register for full article.  

While I pride myself as being a good listener (having been trained and made aware of the impact of this skill early on), I was sorely humbled when recognizing (by moi or others) the times I "slipped" into the modes portrayed in the bad listener field guide below . . . ouch.  If
you are a parent or an educator (which one can discuss why these may be such distinct silos)
nevertheless, you will be truly humbled if and WHEN your child/student points out that it may serve you well to improve the listening quotient.  Argh!

Thankfully, the author admitted as much as well, giving us all "an out" ;))

As importantly, the next time one of your colleagues pulls one of these non-listening tactics, you'll have a better sense of what is really going on.  For example, not all questions are created equal - just check out "The Preambler."

 I once had a boss (a CEO of a major Fortune 100 company) who used this tactic as his signature style, using "it" so often- which was essentially an onslaught of slanted questions.  The best way to counter-act this tactic was to have answers at the ready, along with counter-questions prepared.  A lot of effort and woe, but sometimes one just has to, short of calling this person on it.  One thing I did learn from this style, however, is the importance of "small questions," which can reveal much more than so many "big picture" questions. 

Or, for a bit of fun, try matching each Republican Presidential primary candidate any politician of late with one of these styles portrayed below in this excerpt.
 DO check out the VIDEO below:

A field guide to identifying bad listeners

spot_Opinionator1.jpgTo improve your listening skills, you must learn what's keeping you from seeking and hearing the information you need. Below are descriptions of six of the more common archetypes of bad listeners. Any one individual can demonstrate these archetypes at different times and under different circumstances. I admit that I've demonstrated all six, sometimes on the same day. During your business conversations this week, see if you recognize any of these kinds of bad listeners - or recognize them in yourself - and track the results. If you can use the descriptions below to set up some alarm bells for your own off-putting behavior, you've taken the first step in curing what ails you.
The Opinionator
The Opinionator listens to others primarily to determine whether or not their ideas conform to what he or she already believes to be true. Opinionators may appear to be listening closely, but they aren't listening with an open mind and instead often use their silences as opportunities to "reload." While Opinionators may have good intentions, the effect of this listening style is to make conversation partners uncomfortable or even to intimidate them. Opinionators routinely squelch their colleagues' ideas.
The Grouch
Grouches are poor listeners who are blocked by a feeling of certainty that your idea is wrong. One typical grouch, a top executive I worked with at an industrial company, made no secret of his contempt for other people's ideas.  He approached conversations as a necessary evil and sent the implicit message: "You're full of it. You're a fool. Why did you think I'd be interested in this?î Through perseverance, people could get through to him in conversations, painful though that was. However, many of his colleagues simply didn't have the energy to break down his barriers every time they needed to express an idea to him.
The Preambler
The Preambler's windy lead-ins and questions are really stealth speeches, often intended to box conversation partners into a corner. Preamblers use questioning to steer the discussion, send warnings, or generate a desired answer. I remember a meeting with one Preambler, the chairman and CEO of a medical complex, who (by my watch) spent 15 minutes posing slanted questions and making rhetorical assertions that all supported a recommendation he wanted to make to his board. Such behavior epitomizes one-way communication.
The Perseverator
Perseverators talk a lot without saying anything. If you pay close attention to one of these poor listeners, you'll find that their comments and questions don't advance the conversation. As often as not, Perseverators are editing on the fly and fine-tuning their thoughts through reiteration. Perseverators use the thoughts of their conversation partners to support their own prejudices, biases, or ideas. When talking to one, you may feel that the two of you are having completely different conversations.
The Answer Man
Everyone wants to solve problems, but Answer Man spouts solutions before there is even a consensus about the challenge - a clear signal that input from conversation partners isn't needed. Answer Man may appear at first to be an Opinionator. But the latter is motivated by strong feelings of being right, while the former is desperately eager to please and impress. You know you are speaking to Answer Man if your conversation partner can't stop providing solutions and has ready answers for any flaws you point out, as well as quick rejoinders to all the points you raise.
The Pretender
Pretenders feign engagement and even agreement but either aren't interested in what you're saying or have already made up their minds. The worst Pretender I ever met was the CEO of a health care company who had all the right moves: he seemed to hang on every word uttered, for example, and frequently won people over with a knowing, empathetic smile. That gave his conversation partners every indication that he was processing their words and agreeing with them. Yet eventually his colleagues would realize that he had not acted on anything they'd said or, worse, didn't have access to that information when it came time to make decisions or take action.


As executives become more senior, they are less likely to receive constructive performance and strategic feedback. They can get it by calling on their junior colleagues.

The executives guide to better listening

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It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
Leonardo da Vinci
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