The Power of Listening in Helping People Change by Guy ItzchakovAvraham N. (Avi) Kluger

Giving performance feedback is one of the most common ways managers help their subordinates learn and improve. Yet, research revealed that feedback could actually hurt performance: More than 20 years ago, one of us (Kluger) analyzed 607 experiments on feedback effectiveness and found that feedback caused performance to decline in 38% of cases. This happened with both positive and negative feedback, mostly when the feedback threatened how people saw themselves.
One reason that giving feedback (even when it’s positive) often backfires is because it signals that the boss is in charge and the boss is judgmental. This can make employees stressed and defensive, which makes it harder for them to see another person’s perspective. For example, employees can handle negative feedback by downplaying the importance of the person providing the feedback or the feedback itself. People may even reshape their social networks to avoid the feedback source in order to restore their self-esteem. In other words, they defend themselves by bolstering their attitudes against the person giving feedback.
We wanted to explore whether a more subtle intervention, namely asking questions and listening, could prevent these consequences. Whereas feedback is about telling employees that they need to change, listening to employees and asking them questions might make them want to change. In a recent paper, we consistently demonstrated that experiencing high quality (attentive, empathic, and non-judgmental) listening can positively shape speakers’ emotions and attitudes.

Giving performance feedback is one of the most common ways managers help their subordinates learn and improve. Yet, research revealed that feedback could actually hurt performance: More than 20 years ago, one of us (Kluger) analyzed 607 experiments on feedback effectiveness and found that feedback caused performance to decline in 38% of cases. This happened with both positive and negative feedback, mostly when the feedback threatened how people saw themselves.
One reason that giving feedback (even when it’s positive) often backfires is because it signals that the boss is in charge and the boss is judgmental. This can make employees stressed and defensive, which makes it harder for them to see another person’s perspective. For example, employees can handle negative feedback by downplaying the importance of the person providing the feedback or the feedback itself. People may even reshape their social networks to avoid the feedback source in order to restore their self-esteem. In other words, they defend themselves by bolstering their attitudes against the person giving feedback.
We wanted to explore whether a more subtle intervention, namely asking questions and listening, could prevent these consequences. Whereas feedback is about telling employees that they need to change, listening to employees and asking them questions might make them want to change. In a recent paper, we consistently demonstrated that experiencing high quality (attentive, empathic, and non-judgmental) listening can positively shape speakers’ emotions and attitudes.

Going back to giving feedback, of course we do not claim that listening must replace feedback. Rather, it seems that listening to employees talk about their own experiences first can make giving feedback more productive by helping them feel psychologically safe and less defensive.
Listening has its enemies
Our findings support existing evidence that managers who listen well are perceived as people leaders, generate more trust, instill higher job satisfaction, and increase their team’s creativity. Yet, if listening is so beneficial for employees and for organizations, why is it not more prevalent in the workplace? Why are most employees not listened to in the way they want? Research shows that a few barriers often stand in the way:
Loss of power. Research from our team has shown that some managers may feel that if they listen to their employees they are going to be looked upon as weak. But at the same time, it’s been shown that being a good listener means gaining prestige. So it seems managers must make a tradeoff between attaining status based on intimidation and getting status based on admiration.
Listening consumes time and effort. In many instances, managers listen to employees under time pressure or while they’re distracted by other thoughts or work. So listening is an investment decision: managers must put in the time to listen in order to see the future benefits.
Fear of change. High-quality listening can be risky because it entails entering a speaker’s perspective without trying to make judgments. This process could potentially change the listener’s attitudes and perceptions. We observed several times that when we trained managers to truly listen, they gained crucial insights about their employees — they were stunned to learn how little they knew about the lives of people they’d worked with for many years.
For example, several managers reported that when they tried listening to employees who they’d confronted about poor attendance, they learned that these employees were struggling with supporting a family member (a wife dying of cancer, a sibling with a mental disability). This realization threatened managers’ attitudes and views about themselves — an experience called cognitive dissonance that can be difficult.
Tips for becoming a better listener
Listening resembles a muscle. It requires training, persistence, effort, and most importantly, the intention to become a good listener. It requires clearing your mind from internal and external noise — and if this isn’t possible, postponing a conversation for when you can truly listen without being distracted. Here are some best practices:
Give 100% of your attention, or do not listen. Put aside your smartphone, iPad, or laptop, and look at the speaker, even if they do not look back at you. In an ordinary conversation, a speaker looks at you occasionally to see that you’re still listening. Constant eye contact lets the speaker feel that you are listening.
Do not interrupt. Resist the urge to interrupt before the speaker indicates that they are done for the moment. In our workshop, we give managers the following instruction: “Go to someone at your work who makes listening very hard on you. Let them know that you are learning and practicing listening and that today, you will only listen for __ minutes (where the blank could be 3, 5, or even 10 minutes), and delay responding until the predetermined listening time is up, or even until the following day.”
The managers are often amazed at their discoveries. One shared, “in 6 minutes, we completed a transaction that otherwise would have taken more than an hour”; another told us; “the other person shared things with me that I had prevented her from saying for 18 years.”
Do not judge or evaluate. Listen without jumping to conclusions and interpreting what you hear. You may notice your judgmental thoughts but push them aside. If you notice that you lost track of the conversation due to your judgments, apologize to the speaker that your mind was distracted, and ask them to repeat. Do not pretend to listen.
Do not impose your solutions. The role of the listener is to help the speaker draw up a solution themselves. Therefore, when listening to a fellow colleague or subordinate, refrain from suggesting solutions. If you believe you have a good solution and feel an urge to share it, use a question, such as “I wonder what will happen if you choose to do X?”
Ask more (good) questions. Listeners shape conversations by asking questions that benefit the speaker. Good listening requires being thoughtful about what the speaker needs help with most and crafting a question that would lead the speaker to search for an answer. Ask questions to help someone delve deeper into their thoughts and experiences.
Before you ask a question, ask yourself, “is this question intended to benefit the speaker or satisfy my curiosity?” Of course, there is room for both, but a good listener prioritizes the needs of the other. One of the best questions you can ask is, “Is there anything else?” This often exposes novel information and unexpected opportunities.
Reflect. When you finish a conversation, reflect on your listening and think about missed opportunities — moments you ignored potential leads or remained silent versus asking questions. When you feel that you were an excellent listener, consider what you gained, and how you can apply this type of listening in more challenging circumstances.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *