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“Must have Good Listening Skills”

“Must have Good Listening Skills” What does that mean anyway?

We’ve all seen job adverts with role descriptions that say “must have good listening skills” or “must have good presentation skills” or “must have good negotiating skills”.

The list goes on… “must have good process mapping skills”, “must be good with people”, but what does ‘good’ mean? Does it mean ‘not bad’? Top quartile? Better than average? How do you even determine that?

Maybe it’s not an empirical thing, maybe it’s a perception thing; after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So maybe it means “understands me” or “can take notes accurately” or “has patience for other people”.

But surely everyone thinks they’re “good” at listening…right?! I think it must be like how ninety percent of drivers think they are better than the average driver.

Dilbert cartoon
DILBERT © Scott Adams. Used By permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.

On the other hand, if “good” is an actual measure on the spectrum of listening capability, I would love to know what “better practice” looks like and more importantly, how do I learn it?

The underlying subtext, never explicit but always shadowing those three words “Good (Driving) Skills”, are that these skills must be ‘good’ in context of the requirements of the role and situation, not someone’s perception and judgement.

Claiming that “I’m a good listener” is like saying, “I’m a good driver”.

“Soccer mums” are good drivers. They are cautious and safe and follow the road rules and never speed. “Petrolheads” are good drivers too. They can zip down the narrowest laneways, reverse park in one-go and are never intimidated by aggressive traffic. Taxi drivers are good drivers. They are extremely road aware, can navigate decisively and can multitask at the wheel. Bus drivers are good drivers too, as are ambulance drivers and highway patrol officers.

Newly minted P-platers are super-confident and will claim to be good drivers, although their insurance premiums might suggest that this is likely more arrogance than skill. Then you have Formula1 drivers; you could argue they have earned the right to be arrogant.

Are these examples of “better” driving skills, or are they examples of “different” driving needs for different situations?

And doesn’t this analogy also ring true for professional capabilities? If we are to believe that there is such a thing as a “good listener”, is there such a thing as a “better listener”? Perhaps “better listening” means different listening requirements for different situations.

Let’s consider a (not so) hypothetical business meeting as an example.

Is “good listening skills” about hearing and recollection?

I know an excellent Executive Assistant. Anna can sit in three-hour meetings, some of which have more than 10 people, and at the end of these meetings she’s the only one who can recall exactly what everyone said and their responses to every comment. She does not have an opinion about what was said at the meeting, but that’s not a role requirement.

This listening talent is invaluable, and no doubt falls into the category of “good listening skills”.

Or is “good listening skills” about comprehending and defining?

I know a brilliant Business Analyst. Sumati can walk into the same meeting cold, without direct experience or previous study, but through listening deeply to the logical and rational conversations in that meeting is able to pull apart all the incongruencies, inconsistencies and contradictions in the conversation. This enables clear, cut-through dialogue without misunderstanding, misinterpretation and misinformation.

This listening talent is also invaluable, and no doubt also falls into the category of “good listening skills”.

Or perhaps “good listening skills” is about empathy and engagement.

I know a marvellous Change Manager. Sasha can attend this very same meeting and can quickly read the temperature in the room and gauge the temperament of all the participants. For him, the words are less important; he hears sentiment and he can decipher feelings. He can interpret the momentum of the topic, the centres of gravity and the unsaid misalignments. He doesn’t depend on the definition of the words or the logic of the sentences. He understands the personal importance to the speaker. i.e. “It might be the best business case, but if they don’t like it, it’s not the right business case”.

Similarly, we must agree that this talent is also invaluable, and no doubt also falls into the category of “good listening skills”.

Or perhaps “good listening skills” is about context and cohorts.

I know an awesome organisational sociologist. Saul listens for different cultures, norms and belief systems. In this very same meeting he can observe behaviours and not only describe what the behaviours are, but also why they are the way they are. When people are uneasy or unwilling to give up their position he can articulate what’s driving this, whether it be an intrinsic mindset or personality type, the product of an ingrained organisational culture or the influence of an inherent personal or professional agenda.

Just like the three aforementioned scenarios, this talent is invaluable, and without doubt also falls into the category of “good listening skills”.

OK, so what’s the point and why is this important to me?

Listening is only the first of five steps in the communication process. Therefore, how we listen (our listening style) also influences the way we translate, write, present and message. Inevitably, it influences the way we communicate. 

The way we Communicate influences the way we are perceived which in turn influences the way people relate to us, and us to them.

So, let’s think about this. Not a business meeting though. Let’s consider a different context. How about a (not so) hypothetical social dinner 😉

Have you ever been in a situation where you are out having dinner with some new people who you are getting to know for the first time?

Imagine there’s an interesting mix of personalities at the table and after a few drinks you are engaging in spirited conversation and beginning to get to know each of them. Let’s call them Indi, Ollie and Alex. Apologies in advance for the stereotypes but they’re really quite useful when trying to explain stuff.

The person on the left of you, Indi, is a Literal Listener.

Literal listeners:
  • get their opinions from authority
  • are certain, indoctrinated and definitive
  • have complete faith and conviction in their views
  • are open to clarification and instruction but only from the designated authority
  • their opinions are unequivocal and correct because that’s what they believe.

The person on the right of you, Ollie, is a Logical Listener.

Logical listeners:
  • get their opinions from science
  • are rational, factual, and accurate
  • are open to reason but only if it is objective and can be evidenced
  • seek facts from ‘credible’ sources who think like them
  • their opinions are unequivocal and correct unless proven otherwise.

You introduce Indi to Ollie and they begin a conversation. Pick a topic (any topic). Stop and imagine how that goes.

How are they listening to each other? What’s Indi’s perception of Ollie? What’s Ollie’s perception of Indi?

Indi probably thinks Ollie is super argumentative and antagonistic; just loves revving people up and getting under their skin, apparently just for sport. 😖

Ollie probably thinks Indi is righteous and stubborn; never admitting being wrong no matter what facts are presented. 😠

The person across the table from you, Alex, is a Lateral Listener.

Lateral listeners:
  • get their opinions from feelings
  • are sensitive, perceptive and sympathetic
  • are open to meaning in the context of the human experience
  • seek to create harmony and balance through the democratisation of self-expression
  • Their opinions are their personal expression of a sociological context.

You introduce Ollie to Alex and they begin a conversation. Pick a topic (any topic). Stop and imagine how that goes.

How are they listening to each other? What’s Ollie’s perception of Alex? What’s Alex’s perception of Ollie?

Ollie probably thinks Alex is random and fluffy; someone who blows with the wind, prefers feelings over facts and talks broad motherhood concepts to avoid making actual decisions. 🙄

Alex probably thinks Ollie is a narrow-minded robot who is can’t see the forest for the trees, doesn’t understand the broader sociological contexts or realises that there’s more to it than physical, empirical numerical stuff. 🤯

Have you introduced Indi to Alex yet? How did that go? 😬

Did any of the above scenarios and stereotypes remind you of your current work environment? Did it provide any insight on how people listen to each other?

Listening is one of twenty transferrable “soft” skills that every business professional needs to apply in their working environment 

Just like your driving skills you have the opportunity throughout your career to develop and enhance your professional capabilities. 

How are your listening skills?

Map your “soft” skills and find out!

When you complete your Headway DNA, with your results you’ll receive your own 12-month professional development plan with development actions tailored to you.

The 5 communcation "soft" skills

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