The ability to listen well can make a huge difference to your effectiveness as a manager. It can boost staff morale, enhance team effectiveness and raise overall performance
Good listening is a critical success factor in so many aspects of organisational life; productive negotiations, excellence in customer service and interpersonal relationships at work are just examples. And most of the time you have to do more than just listen. The ability to listen and to think analytically at the same time is a must for informed decision-making and for exercising good judgement – both are central to the role of manager.
However, there are times when listening to understand the facts of a situation or listening just long enough to form an opinion are inadequate. In some situations at work a deeper form of listening is called for; one which enables you to understand not only what a person thinks but why they think that way. Management of workplace conflict, negotiating tricky relationships and dealing with disparate stakeholder interests can all benefit from a ‘credulous’ approach to listening. Credulous listening is important when we want to fully understand another person’s perspective. It is particularly helpful when another’s views arise out of values and core beliefs which are different from our own.
What is credulous listening?
Credulous listening involves devoting your entire attention to another person and accepting that everything they say is true for them. This is not to say that in order to listen credulously we have to abandon our own beliefs about a situation; it simply means accepting that there are multiple ways of seeing the same set of circumstances and that by putting our own views to one side for a while we allow ourselves to fully focus on developing understanding of where the other person is coming from.
The concept of credulous listening has its origins in the work of George Kelly, a psychologist who developed the concept of ‘personal constructs’. The idea is that we each create our own unique understandings of the world around us and that this understanding emerges from our personal values and beliefs about how things should be and from our individual prejudices and assumptions. These factors combine to produce our personal constructs. Credulous listening is a technique for transcending (for a time at least) your own personal constructs in order to understand others’ perspectives.
How do you listen credulously
Credulous listening calls for all the techniques of ‘active listening’; for example, use of open questions, paraphrasing what the other person has said in order to check your understanding and paying attention not only to what a person says but the feelings underlying what they say.
Credulous listening also goes beyond active listening in that it involves doing two things simultaneously:
- Believing that what the other person thinks and says is true for them and
- Suspending your own ideas and judgements in order to understand the other person’s perspective.
As George Kelly famously said If you want to know something about a person ask – they might just tell you!”
The power of good questions
There is one other skill managers need to develop in order to fully develop their credulous listening capability – how to form good questions.
For purposes of credulous listening a ‘good’ question is one which helps the speaker explain their perspective and deepens the listener’s understanding. For example – “Tell me more about …..” or “What do you see as the value of that in dealing with this issue?”.
Questions loaded with the questioner’s assumptions are unhelpful when you are aiming to listen credulously. For example rather than “How can that possibly help us?” genuine interest in another’s perspective could be expressed as “How do you see that idea helping us in this situation?” or “Can you help me understand how you see the value of that?”.
A good question is often short yet challenges the speaker to elaborate on their perspective. Here are some examples:
“Can you give me an example?”
“What would happen if that were true?”
“What makes you say that?”
This style of questioning invites people to consider their beliefs and opinions more deeply. Credulous listening enables them to be heard.
When is credulous listening valuable?
Credulous listening is not an ‘all purpose’ tool. There are times when you listen just long enough to enter the debate and only carefully enough to be well placed to get your point across. But there are other times when it is appropriate to preference listening in order to understand over listening to make a judgement.
The value of listening credulously is that it enables us to understand another’s perspective even when at the outset their perspective may be incomprehensible to us. By suspending judgement we liberate ourselves from the constraints of our habitual ways of thinking and set aside our personal constructs and so become open to new ways of thinking and seeing.
Credulous listening is useful:
- as an approach to conflict resolution;
- as an alternative to mediation;
- in formal and informal performance management conversations;
- when new ideas and ‘outside the square’ thinking are called for;
- for identifying creative solutions to new and longstanding problems; and
- for ensuring there is learning from mistakes.
Test your credulous listening potential
The following exercise can be used in many work settings to test the value for you of learning more about credulous listening and deciding whether it is worth investing time to hone your skills.
- Select a situation in which you expect to be exposed to ideas beliefs opinions or values which are difficult for you to accept. For a first ‘run’ it is best to not choose a situation of extreme conflict.
- Commit to yourself that for a set period of time (try 15 minutes to begin) you will suspend judgement and focus your listening for the purpose of understanding the other person’s perspective. Aim to accept that everything they say is true for them.
- Listen carefully to the other person. Keep asking yourself if you have understood their perspective and if you have not ask a well formed question in order to clarify your understanding.
- Take note of (but do not remark on) your reactions to what they have to say but aim to set your reflections to one side in order to maintain focus on your task of understanding the other person’s perspective.
- Remind yourself throughout the exercise that your task is only to understand their perspective.
- As soon as possible after the conversation is over make notes on what you learned about their perspective. If possible invite the person to whom you have listened to hear your account of what you have understood and ask for their help to check how effectively you have listened credulously.
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and group dynamics through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates team planning and development undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative action learning approach coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.