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Harvard Business Review’s ‘Four Characteristics Of Outstanding Listeners’

Good listening skills aren’t what most people think.

Harvard Business Review’s ‘Four Characteristics Of Outstanding Listeners’

via Flickr user (cc) SMX International

When most people think about improving their communications skills they consider sharpening their public speaking abilities, adopting confident body language or learning to clarify their speech by eliminating unnecessary “uhms.” But they often ignore the underappreciated art of listening. That’s a why a new study from the Harvard Business Review is a great tool for people looking to improve their listening skills in their social and professional relationships.


According to the study, most people believe that good listening skills come down to three major things:

-- Being quiet while the other person is speaking
-- Letting the other person know you’re listening via facial expressions and verbal sounds (“mmm-hmm”)
-- Being able to repeat back what the other person has said

Although these skills are important, they see good listening as being able to clearly comprehend what the speaker is saying. But research shows that being a good listener is a far more complicated skill set. To better understand what makes someone a good listener the Harvard Business Review analyzed the behaviors of 3,492 participants in a management development program. The researchers identified the most effective listeners and found four major behaviors they employed.

Here are the four characteristics of outstanding listeners:

Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. The best listeners are those that periodically ask questions to probe deeper into the speaker’s message. By asking a good question, the speaker feels the listener has comprehended their message enough to request additional information. Great listening isn’t a “speaker versus hearer” interaction, but an active back and forth.

Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem. Good listeners are able to make the speaker feel confident and supported. They’re also able to create a safe communication environment where issues and differences can be discussed freely.

Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation. Poor listeners are seen as being competitive. Competitive listeners appear to only be involved in the conversation to pick up errors in reasoning and use their silence as a way to think of what they’re saying next. Good listeners may challenge the speaker but only to help and not to provoke an argument.

Good listeners tended to make suggestions. Good listeners are able to provide feedback or suggestions in a way which doesn’t seem like they’re stepping on the listener or trying to solve the problem without hearing the speaker out.

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