BBC Capital

Leader Board

The fine art of listening — for managers

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Listening the right way is a crucial management skill. (Thinkstock)

Listening the right way is a crucial management skill. (Thinkstock)

Last year, Glenn Burkins decided it was time to completely rethink his business model. But instead of dreaming up a new concept himself, he wanted his customers to do it.

Burkins — who edits Qcitymetro.com, a North Carolina website for African-American news — decided to go on what he dubbed a “listening tour.” That is, he’d make an overt effort to talk with his customers. Over the course of more than two months, he met with two dozen readers.

It turned out that the things Burkins thought were important had no value to many of his readers. They didn’t want the breaking news he was pushing onto the website, sometimes multiple times a day. Instead, they wanted analysis of the news — even if it was delayed — written with a different perspective than what they found in traditional media.

“As an entrepreneur, we’re always just doing it, doing it, doing it. We run from one fire to another,” Burkins said. “You rarely have time to sit back and listen to what customers are saying, and that’s exactly what we should be doing.”

A listening tour may be a novel idea to for entrepreneurs and managers alike. But efforts to be more responsive shouldn’t stop there. People who master the ability to listen to customers and employees have a far better chance at success.

It might be harder than it sounds. Few business leaders have figured out how to effectively pay attention to others. A 2013 study by Stanford University's Graduate School of Business found that few chief executive officers excelled at listening. A review of the business leaders’ performance evaluations showed listening was rarely even mentioned as an evaluation metric, good or bad.

The reason for that failure is deceptively simple: We’re taught from an early age to listen poorly, said Helen Meldrum, associate professor of psychology at Bentley University in Massachusetts. When talking with someone, our responses typically fall into one of four categories that “accidentally alienate”.

We judge, offer unwanted advice, ask harsh questions or placate in a way that dismisses the other person’s concerns. 

Doctors who truly listen to their patients are more likely to be successful, Meldrum found in research she released in 2011. Other research has shown that about one-third of all prescriptions go unfilled; Meldrum found that a doctor’s inability to hear patients’ concerns was likely the reason that a patient never even went to the pharmacy.

‘Insensitive jerk’

It wasn’t that the doctors didn’t care about their patients — it was that they didn’t take the time to truly listen to what they were saying. For instance, one doctor, instead of treating listening closely to a patient’s struggles losing weight, he would dismiss them by saying he had dropped a few pounds by eating more salads.

“In the short term, we’re all impatient and want to find the short answer that’s time efficient, especially the busy manager,” Meldrum said. “But in the long term, people are going to think you’re an insensitive jerk.”

Improving your listening skills isn’t easy, admitted Richard Mullender, an expert on the subject and a former lead trainer of the National Crisis and Hostage Negotiation Unit at Scotland Yard in the UK. To start, it’s crucial to begin paying attention to and building up several skills, such as interpreting key words and allowing the other person to talk more. The former sounds simple enough, but it takes mental focus and a true desire to understand what the person is saying.

Managers who master the skill are more likely to get what they want from employees and customers, Mullender said.

“If you can figure out how someone likes to work, you can better task them in areas where they excel,” Mullender said. “You can’t achieve that without first listening to their needs.”

Often, the most effective way to show you’re listening is simply responding in an empathetic way, Meldrum said. If, say, an employee asks a manager to go home early to care for his sick cat, avoid the quick answer that dismisses the employee’s concern. Instead, answer in a way that shows you care about the problem.

“Even when the answer is ‘no’,” Meldrum said, “expressing empathy for the employee’s needs will show that you care and that you’re listening to their problems.”

For Burkins, his listening tour taught him something else that was important: humility. Many of the readers he met criticised his website and suggested doing things far differently. Burkins built his company from scratch, so listening to and internalising harsh criticism was not easy.

“The main thing I discovered, is that listening well requires a certain emptiness of yourself,” said Burkins, a former Wall Street Journal newspaper reporter. “It’s hard to have people, in effect, say you’re wrong.”

But there was a payoff. Burkins said his listening tour unearthed some groundbreaking ideas he plans to roll out soon.

And while a two-month listening tour isn’t for everyone or every day, more effective listening on a daily basis might allow you to hear that next groundbreaking idea.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.