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WHIN Monthly Bulletin

Listen Better for Improved Performance Dr. Angus I. McLeod

Exquisite listening is part of performance management in contrast to direction which removes potential for others to develop and self-start; directions should be given when an individual shows a lack of experience or understanding or where there is high-urgency due to quality or health-risks, for example. The range of skills needed for exquisite listening are not fixed in any person for all time, but can be developed. In this article, a number of common barriers to better listening are detailed together with learning strategies. Awareness of limitations, together with workable solutions, will allow progress to be made and improve the work-culture. 


Exquisite listening is at the heart of facilitating high performance. When we listen well, we learn more about a person, about both their competences (practical and thinking) and about their motivations and de-motivations. We also learn more about how to influence them to both improved wellbeing and sustained performance. A number of factors get in the way for many managers - awareness of these factors is a good place to start, so that strengths can be acknowledged and so that gaps can be self-managed, to produce greater personal performance and satisfaction.

What gets in the way?

Message Spoken Message Heard Judging Comparing Interpreting Anticipating Rehearsing

Busy heads make it impossible to listen well. When we are anticipating what is about to be said, wondering about what clever question to ask or we are triggered into our own reminiscences, we are not listening. The figure shows some of the many aspects of mental processing that are found in bad listeners; the gaps show the periods when listening is NOT happening! To change, one first needs to revalue the art of, and practice of listening and also, to understand the benefits of change.

Why Better Listening benefits Performance

Many managers assume that thinking intelligently is the best way to participate in conversations at work. However, those that listen badly will not build the necessary rapport for their wisdom to be respected or have significant impact. Their wisdom may even be ignored or circumnavigated on purpose. That is because most people know instinctively when a manager is faking their attention, even if they cannot quantify the actual evidence – the result is distrust. The effects of distrust include lower performance and an unwillingness to support and work harder for that manager.

How do you feel when you are listened to very well? When we list our own positive associations after having been properly heard, it becomes easy to imagine that others may also experience these positive associations if we listen well too. People say things like, “feel valued”, “listened to”, “worthy and feel impactful”. Used in conjunction with good questioning, exquisite listening helps the people who work with us to develop and learn so they can perform better. They do so sustainably, that is, performance underpinned by wellbeing.

Rethinking the role of manager

Another common issue why managers may not listen well, is because they feel they have to be clever or that their first duties are to be responsible for everything and to offer solutions. These erroneous assumptions prevent proper listening and worse, they get in the way of the person developing their own psychological competences and performance at work. Further, these common ‘manager’ traits get in the way of their staff operating independently from them. Both of these are bad for the organization and mean that the manager will be required to spend more time managing, rather than developing these individuals to contribute more effectively.

It may be better to rethink the role of manager. What are you really trying to develop in your people? Are you too task-focused, neglecting the necessary inputs required to develop performance? Are you over- or under-managing people? What would be the obvious effects of these two styles of miss-managing? Which people may be over- or under-managed? Have you asked all of them in 1-2-1s? Do you feel positive about the 1-2-1? Do you have them often enough?

These questions and others may help decide changes that will help mark you out as a leader of people rather than just a manager (with the same skills that you had last month and the month before that).

Revaluing Listening

Revaluing can change thinking and behavior radically[1]. Values are drivers of change, thus a value about listening well and a belief about the benefits can and will change thinking and behaviors. In practice, we repeat and acknowledge our new value and as we focus on what is being expressed (both in words and intonation, pitch, stress and associated body language); the internal processing in our heads disappears. This is a normal human condition, if we listen to a radio and something significant happens, the radio evaporates until we notice it again much later. We can use this knowledge of natural human weakness to listen (focus) on the external world outside our head; to focus on the importance of listening better, and be confident that these skills will develop better performance in our self.

Self-training for improving listening skills

An enhancement to the adoption of values about people, listening and the benefits of listening can involve Reflective Language[2]. When you really listen well, you become better at reflecting a person’s actual words and or phrases. You can then use these as a prelude to your response - a statement, question or both. This skill of using ‘some of the same language’ has a name in management and that is ‘Reflective Language’. The practice is covert and the attention required to master it will lead to better listening.

There are people who, through ignorance, may assert that Reflecting Language must be annoying. But we assert from actual experience, that the manipulative or graceless copying of language may indeed be annoying but, that graceful use of the person’s own words shows that you have been attentive. It further reduces the possibility of introducing doubts about your (possibly covert) objectives or any confusion over semantic meaning.  Additionally, it stops any potential for one-up ‘interpretation’ of a person’s adequate communication, as if their own words were not good enough.

There is at least one further advantage in the 1-2-1 situation and that is that Reflective Language does not need re-interpretation or any intellectual processing. These are of particular advantage when we are helping a person to learn and develop. When Reflective Language is used well by an expert manager or coach, most people are not aware of Reflective Language having been used (when asked subsequently). We know this from a mass of video material from 1-2-1s performed in front of audiences. In fact, the subjects in this situation are also invariably unaware of the audience and media technology within a few minutes from the start of that public 1-2-1., because their attention has gone ‘internal’.

The practice of Reflective Language demands exquisite listening. To begin with, a significant word may be the only thing that is reflected back, but with experience, further words and short phrases (that seem significant to the speaker) can be reflected back before asking another question.

So, if I heard you right, you feel ‘suffocated’ when Barbara goes into what you call her ‘preaching mode’. When Barbara is in that mode, what would someone else need to believe or do, in order to remain fully able to respond professionally?

Like riding a bike, practice makes perfect and improvement in Reflective Language leads to better listening and managing skills.

Issues with silence

Many managers talk to avoid silences. The effect is that in their anxiety to prevent silences, they may interrupt people before they have finished speaking. A test of this, apart from just trying to notice, is to make a habit of breathing for half a second before replying to people. This has the added benefit of providing time to recall a word or phrase to reflect back, but also a time during which any personal discomfort about the silence may be noticed. If you find (or already know) that you are uncomfortable with silences up until now, it is useful to practice with silence. In the training room, we run a program called the ‘Power of Silence’ in which the second exercise is a seven minute 1-2-1 where ‘the manager’ just listens and is not permitted to intervene in any way. After some practice, the managers are much more comfortable with a few seconds of silence in conversations; changing their behaviors back at work!


Exquisite listening is a learned skill that anyone can improve. It offers the prospect of better rapport, enhanced teams and raised performance. A number of common issues that get in the way have been highlighted as well as simple strategies for breaking through and enhancing existing skills. One of these skills is the use of silence. We have detailed just one purpose in the use of silence, but in fact there are different types of silence including silence to keep someone on the spot (and force them to acknowledge a weakness). There is another silence mentioned above that is simply about listening well and not interrupting. Another, (where the Power of Silence name comes from) is the silence that may follow a challenging question and creates self-reflective, generative, psychological ‘experiencing’; sometimes it creates a major, cathartic-shift to enormous new perception, motivation and action.


[1] Adapted after Bateson, G. (1992). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine by Dilts, R (1994) Strategy of Genius Vol. 1.

[2] McLeod, A.I. (2003) Performance Coaching, Crown House, NY and Carmarthen, UK.