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Listening, Not Feedback: A Powerful Way to Improve Well-Being and Performance

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Our guest blogger is, Avraham N. Kluger, Ph.D, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Jerusalem School of Business Administration.

The ability to listen influences trust, work productivity, job commitment, safety, student achievement and can even reduce burnout. Here, Dr. Kluger shares his findings from a meta- analysis done on the value of listening and its positive effects on behavior of both the listener and the listened to, and his own life experience.

The recognition that I needed to improve my listening skills changed both my personal life and my research. As a researcher, I have documented the damage that feedback can cause to performance. As a person, I knew that people telling me, that is, giving me feedback regarding what they thought about my behavior, irritated me, at best, and rarely led to any improvements. The search for alternatives for feedback led me to co-develop the feedforward interview--a protocol of asking interviewee questions designed to create an internal feedback where the interviewee discovers his or her own best ways for flourishing and compares his or her current behavior to what he or she knows will do good to him or her.  Eventually, I realized that the feedforward interview is just one application of combining constructive questions with deep listening.  So, I set to study listening. Personally, I learned that I was lucky to start cultivating a village of listeners who heard my pain and helped me grow, be calmer, and listen to others.

What We Found       
To assess what is known about listening, I analyzed, thus far, 256 effect sizes that I found in 108 papers reporting 145 studies studying 101 different variables related to listening.  There are several striking results.  First, correlational studies suggest that:

  • the better a manager listens the higher he or she is perceived as people leader, ρ = .73,
  • the higher is his or her subordinates' job-satisfaction, ρ = .55, commitment, ρ = .40, psychological safety ρ = .68, and trust, ρ = .60, and
  • the lower is their burnout ρ = -.34. 

Moreover, listening is correlated with:

  • objective-performance measures, k = 10, N = 1,613, ρ = .32, and with
  • less violence, ρ = -.36. 

Importantly, one of the performance studies found:

  • a correlation between teachers' assessments of the listening of their principal with standardized-achievement-test scores of their students

Next, experimental works show that 

  • listeners dictate the clarity and fluency of the speaker, and quasi-experimental works suggest that mere listening reduces depression and that listening is trainable

The effects of listening are extremely strong in comparison to effects of other variables.  For example, listening by one's supervisor explains 15 times more variance in job satisfaction than actual salary, ρ = .14.  In addition, among the 61 experimental effects only 3 (5%) showed negative (and marginal) effects of listening, whereas a meta-analysis of feedback interventions of 607 experimental effects showed that 38% caused performance decline and some caused substantial decline.  Thus, listening is a safe, powerful, yet little explored means to improve wellbeing and performance.  Moreover, experiments in my laboratory indicated that listening makes the attitudes of speakers more complex (the speaker becomes aware of both pros and cons), and less extreme.  Thus, these data supports the view of several thinkers that just listening could create a more peaceful world.

Yet, given that listening is so powerful, I wondered why was I was such a poor listener and why people rarely listen well. My co-researchers and I discovered many reasons for poor listening.  Reason for poor listening include:

  • reluctance of speakers who are high on avoidant-attachment style to be listened,
  • loss in dominance accrued by good listeners (which is nevertheless compensated by an increase in prestige),
  • risk of being exposed to trauma shared by speaker,
  • effort in controlling one's need to be heard, and more. 

Thus, telling people "Just listen!" is not going to improve listening.  What might improve listening is patient and compassionate education.

A Call For Listening in Schools
Education in communication is part of the essence any education system. Students learn to read, write, and communicate in numbers. That is, the bulk of education focuses on written communication.  In contrast, oral communication skills receive much less attention from educators, and whenever they do, they focus on rhetoric or debating skills.

Given that listening appears to contribute to the wellbeing of the individual, the wealth of the economy, and for peace, I invite educators to think about investing in teaching listening, starting at the primary school. The challenge is to develop a curriculum that will train students to slowly acquire skills of listening for understanding the other. The meta-analyses suggest that listening is trainable; the consulting field has many modules for teaching listening, including listening circles, exchanging listening time, and various forms of mindfulness. Obviously, it will be desirable to develop theories about teaching listening and to follow up listening courses to figure out best practices.  In the meantime, I wish to leave you with the following questions:

  • Who really listens to you?  (Does this person know it?)
  • To whom can you listen better? 
  • How are you going to make sure that you both receive and give good listening?

Finally, my first answer to the last question is to find ways to solicit personal stories (e.g., Could you tell me a story about your name?  Can you tell me about your hobby?) and to dare share my stories.  What is your answer?

Resources:           
One can download slides from a 2015 Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology conference showing:

 

 

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