The Harmful Leadership Habit Of Poor Listening

Physicians and organizational leaders share the harmful habit of poor listening.

By Norm Smookler
YPO Certified Forum Facilitator

Emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman says the “common cold of organizational leadership is poor listening.” Don’t look to physicians to cure this common cold.

A nonprofit working with health care organizations found that communication failure was at the root of more than 70 percent of serious adverse health outcomes, and more than 75 percent of physicians interrupt their patients before they have a chance to fully answer the question, “How can I help you today?” This leads to misdiagnosis.

Doctors have been improving their listening and, over the last three decades, have increased the time before they interrupt patients from 17 seconds to 23 seconds. “British Medical Journal” ran a test in which patients were allowed to speak until they indicated they were completed. The results showed that patients could express their concerns in two minutes or less and, in most cases, could have voiced all of their concerns in only six more seconds if the doctors had given them the chance (29 seconds total). Studies show that in the United States, malpractice lawsuits decreased by 50 percent when a patient was given those extra six seconds.

Organizational leaders are required to be astute diagnosticians and this requires an exceptional ability to listen. Open questions and patience are highly recommended.

What it takes to be a good active listener

  • Slow down the process – not efficiency
  • Give full attention to what the person is saying, including body language – they are sending signals
  • Do not be distracted – daydreaming
  • Do not judge content – this stops the process
  • Manage your own emotion – they can tell
  • Listen for emotion – anger, sadness, fear, joy
  • Listen for the unmet need
  • Listen to understand, help or learn

My parents are both lawyers and I grew up in a culture of closed questions. I remember cutting the lawn and hitting a small piece of construction material that flew out and broke a window at our house. I went inside to tell my parents and they both asked, “Did you or did you not break the window, yes or no?”

This came back to haunt me when I was formally training as a mediator; my mentors debriefing me after mediations would challenge me on my ability to ask open questions. “You cornered the disputants with your closed questions—that doesn’t work in conflict de-escalation.”

Reviewing 1,500 360 Feedback Tool reports, the two categories “Listens for the Underlying Unmet Needs” and “Addresses Conflict and Resolves or De-Escalates” almost always show the two lowest scores.  As a mediator I know these two are connected. The secret to de-escalating conflict is listening long enough to hear the underlying unmet needs.

Both the physical health and organizational health diagnostician roads start with deep listening. 

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” — Bryant McGill


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