Wasted Words: Do We Make It Harder to Listen than Necessary?
Recent research conducted by Rom Schrift, of Wharton, and Oded Netzer and Ran Kivetz of Columbia University shows that when a decision is easier than people expect, they often make it more difficult.
Do people do the same when listening?
I thought about that when I sat in on a meeting of a team. I was there to observe their communication patterns and identify how those patterns influence the quality of their decisions. I asked myself: Are they making decisions with the appropriate kind and amount of information and does their pace of decision-making fit the problem they are addressing
While that might be an excellent dissertation topic, I needed to make my observations and provide counsel pretty fast. Armed with the Wharton/Columbia research, I looked for listening waste. Here are some of my findings:
- When someone spoke and there was agreement among the listeners, the listeners went on and on about their points of agreement. Waste of time, attention, rigor. It would have been far better for the points of agreement to be noted, and the majority of time spent on points of disagreement.
- When a speaker provided a lot of details and data, rarely were there questions or pushback from the listeners. Waste of learning, clarification, intellectual conflict. It would have been much more effective if there were debate or Q&A to provide a platform for discussion and to increase the grasp of the content.
- Different people commanded different levels of listening attention. Waste of collaboration. The team needs to listen to everyone, regardless of position, authority or expertise.
- They used poor listening hygiene. That is, people talked over one another, held side conversations, didn’t acknowledge the speaker’s points, and failed to show attentive body language. Waste of available information and team cohesion. The team needs listening ground rules, training, and reinforcement for how to listen well.
- There was a race to the finish. Rather than acknowledging the breadth and depth of a problem, they tried to fit the decision-making process into the time allotted for a meeting. Waste of quality decision. They need a decision-making process to avoid the current free-for-all, or loudest voice wins, form of deciding.
It is easier to listen when the outcomes are established, when people actually know how to listen, and when there’s a problem-solving process in place. As the researchers point out, we often complicate decision-making because we misplace our efforts. If we set about listening with good intention and good skills, our focus can then be on garnering meaning and information from an interaction that will lead to high quality decisions.