Most of us truly believe we have awesome listening skills. Even the most humble in our midst would modestly claim that we are above average listeners. I have yet to meet anyone who is honest enough to fess up that he or she is but a lousy listener.
When asked what being a good listener entails, we bring up superficial stuff like making eye contact, not interrupting the speaker, or even repeating and paraphrasing what the speaker is saying.
Granted these are important points. They are pre-requisites to good listening even. But saying that making eye contact makes you a good listener is like saying you can hold a mike hence you are a good singer. #hardlythecase.
In a Harvard Business Review article titled What Great Listeners Actually Do, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman studied thousands of participants in a program for developing managers. They identified the most effective listeners and dived deeper to study what exactly is it that makes them stand out.
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They discovered four main findings. For a start, good listening is much more than being silent and not interrupting. They best listeners ask questions constructively to challenge assumptions and promote discovery and insights. They understood enough of what they are hearing to seek out additional information.
Good listeners make every conversation a positive experience. They are coorporative rather than competitive. Even in disagreement, good listeners make the speaker feel that he or she is trying to help more than disrupt.
Finally, good listeners are also skillful with suggestions, being able to provide appropriate solutions tactfully.
Zenger and Folkman suggested six different layers of listening, with each level building on the next.
Level 1 – The listener creates a safe environment in which difficult, complex or emotional issues can be discussed.
Level 2 – The listener clears away distractions and focuses attention on the speaker
Level 3 – The listener seeks to understand the substance of the conversation
Level 4 – The listener observes non-verbal cues
Level 5 – The listener understands the other person’s emotions and feelings, identifies and acknowledges them
Level 6 – The listener asks questions that clarify assumption the other person holds and helps the other person sees the issue in a new light.
Listening and Investing
It is an understatement to say that listening and investing are similar in many ways. They have far more things in common than we realise. Let me list them
No one teaches us
No one teaches us to listen. We do not learn effective listening in school (listening comprehension doesn’t count). Because it does not count towards our PSLE or O’level scores, there are no enrichment classes to teach us how to listen better.
Our parents do not teach us how to listen. If we are lucky we get to model after parents who are effective listeners. Otherwise we just prod on with inadequate listening skills for the rest of our lives.
No one teaches us how to invest as well. We do not learn investing in school. Many of us leave school and enter the working world with no inkling of how to manage our money. If we are lucky we get exposed to investing and personal finance early on, and some become more competent than others. Failing which, we just prod along with inadequate money skills for the rest of our lives.
Critical Life Skills
Effective listening is a critical life skill. The perks of being a good listener are enormous. A good listener is empathic and supportive. Good listening is a conduit for healthier and more positive relationships with family, with friends, with colleagues, and with clients. A good listener is a more effective leader, a more convincing sales person, a more loving husband or wife and a more understanding parent. It is no exaggeration to say that good listeners tend to go further in life.
The ability to invest is also a critical life skill. In this capitalistic society, one cannot choose to ignore the language of money. Having the knowledge and ability to be in control of your own finances is essential.
The savvy individual plans well and stays away from financial ruin. Competent investors who have a retirement plan in place worry less about money. They are able to spend more time with their families or careers or on their other interests. There is little doubt that having the ability to generate more resources via investing and being able to use these resources wisely makes for better life outcomes.
Above Average we all are
We all think we are good listeners, better than average at the very least. It is not our fault actually, there is a very simple reason why we think this way. And that is because it is tough, almost impossible, to measure how good a listener we are.
We seldom get feedback on our listening skills. There is no scale to benchmark ourselves. And unlike the more immediately apparent physical characteristics like weight and height, it is not possible to compare our listening ability against the next person’s.
Over the years, we remember clearly our listening victories and discard the disasters. We compare ourselves against the most horrible listener we can think of. We end up putting ourselves right at the top of the listening charts.
The situation over at the investing end is exactly the same. Few investors actually measure their investing outcome. We remember our victories and chalk it up to skill while blaming the market conditions for our losses. We compare ourselves against people who are not as well informed, not as interested, or even not as ‘rich’ to start off with and conclude that we are indeed better than average investors.
If everyone is indeed above average, where then does average lie?
Cut from the Same Cloth
Despite all their apparent differences, the ability to listen and the ability to invest have more in common than we realise. On both accounts, being a good listener and competent investor is harder than we think. It is a process more than a destination. It requires deliberate practice and it is hard work.
On both accounts, the rewards will be well worth the effort!