A lot of what passes for management literature paints leadership moving in one direction: good leaders are able to either pound or sweet talk their views into their followers’ heads. Yet listening — mindful listening — can be just as important a communication skill as the power of articulation.

So I was pleased to see the spring book releases include a timely executive guidebook, Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All, from consultant Bernard T. Ferrari.

Ferrari has an interesting perspective: the man has been a surgeon, corporate executive, and business consultant. The great listeners he’s observed share three traits:

1. They show respect.

Great listeners honestly believe that everyone around them has something unique to contribute. They are able to help their reports draw out critical information without spoon-feeding them with immediate solutions. That involves listening and asking pointed questions in a respectful manner.

2. They keep quiet.

Ferrari’s personal rule of thumb is that a conversation partner should be speaking 80 percent of the time while he speaks only 20 percent of the time. This is a tough one for many of us but with practice we can certainly hone our ability to hold back and weigh in at the right time. Using silence has the added benefit of encouraging others to fill in the dead air with deeper insights, and giving the leader a chance to pick up on nonverbal cues.

3. They challenge assumptions.

Good listeners try 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,” Ferari writes. In other words, Mr./Ms Know-It-All, embrace ambiguity.


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