In any exchange, the speaker’s perception and the listener’s experience can be quite different. Leaders must be aware of this “listening paradox” to ensure that whether they are speaking or listening, the experience is positive for all sides.
How does one listen well? The answer—as revealed in an exhaustive review of the listening research published between 2000 and 2021—is often built on the speaker’s perception. For example, some common signs of a good listener include: acknowledging the speaker through non-verbal reactions (nodding the head) or verbal reactions (“hmm,” “yes”); continuing to watch the speaker; and paraphrasing what the speaker has said. All of these familiar criteria of effective listening are based on what the speaker perceives. When speakers perceive that they are being listened to, they accomplish two goals: accuracy, that is, the listener is correctly interpreting and comprehending the information the speaker wants to convey; and support, that is, the listener is showing interest and care for the speaker’s well-being.
This approach to appraising the quality of listening assumes that the speaker’s perception and the listener’s experience are the same. This assumption ignores the “listening paradox”—when the speaker’s perceptions and the listener’s experience conflict. In many cases, while the speaker benefits from the exchange, listening takes an emotional toll on the listener.
Some familiar phrases—such as “I’m too tired to listen,” “I can’t listen to that anymore,” “If I have to hear one more time…”—reflect the listening paradox. Venting, for example, might be cathartic for speakers, who release their pent-up frustrations, but is emotionally depleting for listeners, who are hit with a barrage of negativity that impacts their attitude, mood, and even behaviours.
Listening structures, which are intended to improve listening among groups, further reveal the complexity of listening.
Listening structures range from group norms—such as every individual in a meeting reporting on his or her progress—to more formal structured listening, as represented in CEO town halls. Another listening structure example might be a series of carefully structured conversations between two groups in conflict, intended to break down barriers and open the lines of communication between them. Listening structures can, however, set up inauthentic listening. For example, CEO town halls can appear to be an attempt by a company and its leaders to listen to their employees. If, however, employees realize that no changes are made as a result of these town halls (or any other similar type of leadership-employee listening structure), the town halls only reinforce negative attitudes among employees about the leadership.
This research highlights the importance of going beyond the speaker’s perceptions to ensure that any exchange between speakers and listeners consider the listener’s experience. Whether the context is leaders listening to employees or employees listening to leaders, leaders must manage the tensions of the listening paradox, notably that:
This research also offers leaders cautionary insights into listening structures. Forcing employees to participate in listening structures that they know will be unproductive only reinforces the power inequalities that, supposedly, such listening structures are intended to break down.
Jeffrey Yip’s profile at Simon Fraser University, Beedie School of Business
Colin M. Fisher’s profile at University College, London
Listening in Organizations: A Synthesis and Agenda. Jeffrey Yip, Colin M. Fisher. Academy of Management Annals (July 2022).
Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.
For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.
Use our Ideas to:
Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization. email@example.com