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Desert Highway
Thoughtful writing authored and shared by members of of the Thinking Collaborative community to support others on the journey.

Sustaining the Journey

A Review: "The Power of Listening in Helping People Change" from HBR

Authored By:

Thinking Collaborative


December 10, 2018

This month’s Sustaining the Journey will only be two weeks in length. We know that you will be busy with holiday preparations and the approach of a long break period. We wish you a healthy, stress-free, and relaxed respite from the hustle and bustle of school.

A Review:

Itzchakov, Guy and Avraham N. Kluger. “The Power of Listening in Helping People Change.” Harvard Business Review. May 17, 2018.

This article is very connected to the work of Thinking Collaborative in so many ways. The first and most obvious connection is in the title: The Power of Listening in Helping People Change. One needs to think of the Norms of Collaboration and the pause-paraphrase-pause-pose question pattern of Cognitive Coachingsm. Or one can recall the Five Forms of Feedback and the importance of rapport to intersect the article to Thinking Collaborative.

The article begins with some provocative research on giving either positive or negative performance feedback in the hopes of helping “subordinates learn and improve.” One of the authors, Kluger reviewed 607 experiments of feedback effectiveness and found “that feedback caused performance to decline in 38% of cases” (2). This reverse effect was especially true when the feedback “threatened how people saw themselves” (2).

Recalling David Rock’s work around the acronym SCARF, status and autonomy were two major drivers in feedback failure. According to the authors, feedback “often backfires …because it signals that the boss is in charge and the boss is judgmental” which makes employees “stressed and defensive” (2). That limbic reaction or downshifting from the prefrontal cortex reduces consciousness and flexibility. It becomes harder for people to shift their perceptional positions and see things from another’s perspective. Matter of fact, people restructured their social networks to avoid feedback, (thus avoiding the feedback provider), to rebuild self-esteem.

The researchers wanted to explore “whether more subtle intervention, namely asking questions and listening, could prevent these negative consequences” (2). Itzchakov and Kluger ascertained that “experiencing high quality (attentive, empathic, and non-judgmental) listening can positively shape speakers’ emotions and attitudes” (2).

The researchers describe experiments with three types of listeners: trained, attentive listeners, untrained listeners doing their best, and distracted listeners. They found that subjects paired with good listeners felt less anxious, more self-aware, and reported higher clarity about their attitudes on the topics” (3). A surprising benefit of being paired with a good, undistracted listener was that subjects experienced greater “attitude complexity” meaning that their understandings and perceptions become more complex and less mono dimensional.

Another connection to the Adaptive Schools work is that people who participated in a listening circle, which sounds exactly like a small fire, “reported lower social anxiety, higher attitude complexity, and lower attitude extremity regarding various work-related topics” (3).

The authors write, “In concert, our findings suggest that listening seems to make an employee more relaxed, more self-aware of his or her strengths and weaknesses, and more willing to reflect in a non-defensive manner. This can make employees more likely to cooperate (versus compete) with other colleagues, as they become more interested in sharing their attitudes, but not necessarily in trying to persuade others to adopt them, and more open to considering other points of view” (4).

There is much more to this informative article. The authors point out barriers to good listening and offer tips to become a good listener. The tips include setting aside personal curiosity/inquisitive and solution listening, avoiding distractions like smart phones, resisting the urge to interrupt, and asking good questions to benefit the speaker.

How might you explore some of your barriers to good listening?

What are some ways you can incorporate tips for good listening to develop your listening “muscle”? How might you take advantage of this school break to practice?

What are some caveats to hold onto when you move to offer feedback?

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