Business Conversations: 4 Steps to Better Listening

In my previous post, I mentioned that the ability to really listen is the most overlooked and undervalued skill in both business and personal life. We rarely take time to practice doing it better.

In Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All (Portfolio Hardcover, 2012), Bernard T. Ferrari suggests four steps that form a good listening foundation:

  1. Show respect
  2. Keep quiet
  3. Challenge assumptions
  4. Maintain focus

This sounds simple and straight forward, for sure. But most of us fail to complete all four steps adequately to achieve “power listening.” I see this in the work I do with some pretty smart professionals.

Many people show respect, but have a hard time keeping quiet. Yet keeping quiet is key to showing respect for what a person is saying. While some of my clients are pretty good at challenging assumptions, they also tend to redirect the conversation to their own ideas and point of view, failing to maintain the focus. If we truly want to “hear” what our conversation partners are saying, we’ll need to do better.

Here are Ferrari’s ideas for the first two steps, and I’ll write my next post on the last two steps.

  1. Show respect. Our conversation partners often have the know-how to develop effective solutions. Part of being a good listener is helping them pinpoint critical information and see it in a new light. To harness the power of these ideas, you must fight the urge to “help” by providing immediate solutions. Learn to respect your partner’s ability to identify them.Being respectful doesn’t mean avoiding tough questions. Good listeners routinely ask key questions to uncover the information needed to make better decisions. The goal of power listening is to ensure the free and open flow of information and ideas.
  2. Keep quiet. Get out of the way of your conversations so you can hear what’s important. Don’t hog the spotlight, try to prove your own smarts or emphasize how much you care. Speak only to underscore your conversation partner’s points. Your partner should speak 80 percent of the time, with you filling the remaining 20 percent. Make your speaking time count by spending most of it asking questions, rather than having your say.

This may be easier said than done, as most of us are naturally inclined to speak our minds. Still, you can’t really listen if you’re busy talking. We’ve all spent time with lousy listeners who treat conversations as opportunities to broadcast their status or ideas. They spend more time formulating their next response than listening to the conversation.

What’s been your experience as a conversation partner? I’d love to hear about the times when you felt you were really being listened to… as well as your experiences when you felt not heard. As a listener, see what you can do this week in your conversations to extend your “keeping quiet” times. (Photo:

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