21 Jan 2016 15:32 IST

Gaining the listening edge

There’s a reason God gave us two ears and one mouth. Take the hint and practise listening   -  Shutterstock

Inability to listen is a human trait, but in the corporate context, it can create real and thorny business problems

I had just moved to Hyderabad from Singapore. One of our dining chairs was damaged, with a crack on the seat. I managed to get the phone number of a carpenter, rang him and explained to him, in my limited Hindi, that the chair was broken and needed fixing. He asked, “The leg is broken?”. “No”, I responded telling him that all the legs were fine and it was only the base of the chair that needed fixing. He repeated, “The leg is broken”.

This ping-pong went on, and I started to lose my patience. I shouted at him in frustration. Finally, in a short gap in my tirade, he squeezed in “Saab, mera taang toota hai, mai abhi nahi aa sakta” (Sir, my leg is broken and I can’t come over right now). It’s testimony to my poor listening that the conversation went on for nearly three minutes before I heard what he was really saying. I had assumed a question when only an explanation was being offered.

Our lack of listening is a very human problem, but in the corporate context can create very real and thorny business problems. It’s best we see listening as an essential leadership skill and start working on it. When we think of communication, we often think of one half of it — articulation, speaking skills, presentation skills, public speaking. We rarely think about and are rarely taught the more important half —listening.

Changed realities

In today and tomorrow’s work world, the need for listening has multiplied manifold. The costs of not listening have gone up. The changed realities of today’s corporate world place a premium on this skill.

Consider these factors — global workforces with a mish-mash of cultures, habits and practices, virtual conferences and meetings, as opposed to traditional face-to-face ones, the shorter shelf life of strategies, products, technologies and customer attention. All these call for better listening, especially from leaders. When we listen better, we make wiser decisions, gain enhanced learning and achieve faster action.

A classic example of poor listening was during BP’s infamous oil-spill episode in 2010. While the world was outraged by the incident and the perception that BP was not doing enough to accept responsibility, BP’s Chairman, Tony Hayward called the oil spill ‘relatively tiny’, even while 60,000 barrels of oil was gushing into the ocean. He was later caught telling journalists, “I would like my life back”, referring to the time he was spending on handling the crisis. Tone-deaf can’t get any worse than that! He was soon ex-Chairman.

Contrast that with Flipkart’s response after its first Big Billion Day sale created many angry customers because of several glitches “We did not live up to the promises we made and for that we are really and truly sorry… Delighting you, and every single one of our customers, is absolutely the top-most priority for Flipkart and we have worked very hard over the last seven years to earn your trust. Yesterday, we failed that trust. We have learnt some valuable lessons from this and have started working doubly hard to address all the issues that cropped up during this sale.” Direct, contrite, honest and reflecting real listening.

How to listen better

Here are some specific ways we can get better at listening

An attitude of listening: Very often, poor listening begins with a poor attitude. A know-it-all, I-am-smarter-than-you outlook creates a shaky foundation for listening — whether in the classroom or the conference room. Real listening begins with an attitude of openness, a willingness to learn, an acceptance that this person or situation can teach me something, can help with my growth.

Earlier this year, Hasbro, the toymaker who makes the Star Wars Monopoly, decided to add in a game piece for the lead female character Rey, after receiving a letter from 8-year-old Annie Rose, who complained about Rey being left out, with the blistering reminder “Girls matter!”. Instead of getting defensive or acting indifferent, Hasbro demonstrated a ‘listening attitude’ and gladdened fans and customers.

Provide questions not just answers: A key skill to better listening is to learn to ask the right questions. Our education system is sometimes obsessed with providing answers that we don’t pay enough attention to, instead of helping us ask the questions that trigger thinking, stimulate change and help with better judgment.

This is a key skill that the business world needs today. Often, an important pivot in strategy, a tweak in a marketing approach, making a game-changing hiring decision come from asking smart questions.

Single-use shampoo sachets pioneered by HUL and the tiny Fevikwik adhesive tubes are great examples of companies asking smarter questions and reflecting the listening in their product design and positioning. So the next time we’re in a classroom or team discussion, could we practice contributing with questions instead of answers?

Abandon assumptions: One of the biggest barriers to real listening is our habit of making assumptions and preparing to reply based on those assumptions. This was clearly demonstrated in my experience with the carpenter. We tend to ‘react’ rather than to ‘respond’. One way to change this is to practice the art of pausing — to hold off from giving an instant answer. To ask ourselves: “What incorrect assumptions could I be making about what this person or situation is really communicating to me?”

Rural penetration of several services and products only took off when companies stopped making assumptions about rural markets and actually made an effort to listen and abandon assumptions. Online lingerie retailer Zivame’s CEO Richa Kar spoke about how they get almost 30 per cent of their orders from small towns such as Dimapur in Nagaland, Bari Brahmana in J&K and Jharsuguda in Orissa. This market would never have been real if assumptions had not been abandoned.

There’s a reason God gave us two ears and one mouth. Let’s start taking the hint and practise gaining the listening edge.

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