What Makes Great Listening So Difficult?

A Q&A with CEO Mark Murphy

Q: Listening seems like it should be so simple, yet the average person retains only 10% of what they hear. What makes great listening so hard?

MM: Great listening requires a lot more than nodding your head and going “Uh huh. Wow, that’s interesting.” There’s actually a whole way of thinking we need to embrace about the information that’s coming at us. And that involves how we can parse it all out, dissect it into its component parts and then probe for more information. Also, we need to make sure we’re not getting fixated on unimportant information; that we’re not letting our emotional buttons get pushed such that we can’t hear the real kernel of the message that is coming at us.

In the world of management and work, not everything we hear has equal importance, so we need to know what we are listening for. Because there are some things we hear, certain words, for example, that can set us off and cause us to miss some of the really important stuff that we do need to hear.

The challenges of great listening are plenty. But if we gain the skills, and a deeper understanding of how it all works, so we can then identify and key into what is absolutely important and relevant for us to hear, great listening is absolutely possible. Anyone can do it, but you have to want to do it.

Q: What do you mean when you say we need to key into the important parts of a conversation?

MM: Here’s one example of how it works. Let’s say we’re in a situation where an employee is uncorking on us a little bit. Maybe they want to talk about a project we assigned them that’s not going well and maybe they are little (or a lot) upset. They are using emotional language and it’s subjective, and even a little negative. Other than letting them unload, we think there’s not a ton of value in listening to what’s being said. But the thing is, as difficult as that may be to listen to, there may be a really important nugget of information that we really do need to hear. Something that is going to clue us in to what this person needs so they can go fix the error, or avoid having it happen again. And yet, we’re not hearing it because we’re fixated on all of the other stuff; the distraction. So we need to have a listening model that allows us to separate the stuff we do need to hear from all the rest. We need a way to remove the emotional element and just get to the facts in order to help this person find the right solution.

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At Leadership IQ we teach the FIRE model which allows us to separate the Facts from the Interpretations, Reactions and Ends. Because it’s in the facts that we are going to find that one nugget of really good information we need. The FIRE model allows us to compartmentalize all these other pieces and say, “I just got some tough feedback, but there are some good facts here. There are things I need to listen to, so I need to compartmentalize some of this other stuff I’m hearing so what I am really focusing in on is the facts.” And until we have a listening model that lets us separate it all appropriately, great listening is very hard to do.


Q: How can we know if we got all the facts?

MM: First we need to know how to probe deep to get past all the superficial stuff so we are only focused on the facts we need. And there different kinds of probes, like factual and direct probes or emotional and indirect probes. The situation and the comfort level that’s present basically directs the kind of probe you use.

For example, indirect probes are best in helping circumvent defenses when you think someone’s guard is up. But once you probe down to the facts, and you are no longer dealing with interpretations, reactions and ends, there’s actually a very simple checklist you can mentally run through to make sure you are collecting adequate facts. It’s the same basic checklist used for all information gathering: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

The first step is to get the conversation focused on just the facts and you can do this by doing the “Who, What, When, Where, Why and How” assessment in your mind where you say:  “Okay, well, first, who: do I know who was involved. Okay, yup. I got that. Do I know what they were talking about? What actually happened? Okay, got that. Do I know when it happened? Do I know where it happened? And then, am I making assumptions based on these things or do I actually know why it happened? Do I know what precipitated this? And do I know how it happened?” It takes a bit of practice, but after a while it just happens naturally so you are always thinking about the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of your conversations and that alone will make you a much better listener.

To learn how to keep your own emotions in check when listening to someone is making you agitated, attend our webinar Tapping Into Your Emotional IQ.

A professional corporate writer with over 20-years’ experience crafting just the right words for executives to use in challenging situations, Lyn is a passionate and adept qualitative researcher. Her seasoned skills as an interviewer make her quick to identify the unique attitudes and behaviors that define an organization. Lyn’s extensive expertise in public relations and persuasive communications translates strongly in her contributions to Leadership IQ’s custom-training programs.

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