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Speaking effectively is an essential tool - but have you tried listening?.

Speaking effectively is an essential tool - but have you tried listening?

The art of public speaking isn't a skill needed only by those people who have to stand at a rostrum and address a packed meeting. It's essential for anyone who has to get across an effective message to an audience, whether that assembly comprises hundreds of strangers or just half a dozen or so work colleagues. That's why many organisations have recognised the worth of sending managers and executives to brush up their skills in speaking effectively.

What they're likely to be taught at the start of the first lesson is that, to be a good speaker, first of all you have to be a good listener. Listening is a skill in itself and many of us find it is one much harder to master than speaking.

In issue 2 of the 2012 McKinsey Quarterly, Bernard T. Ferrari agrees that strong listening skills, which few senior executives appear able to cultivate, can make a critical difference to their performance. He gives the example of a senior executive of a large consumer goods company who had spotted a bold partnership opportunity in an important developing market and wanted to pull the trigger quickly to stay ahead of competitors. In meetings with the leadership team, the CEO noted that this trusted colleague was animated, adamant, and very persuasive about the move's game-changing potential for the company. The facts behind the deal were solid.

However, the CEO also observed something which troubled him. His colleague wasn't listening. During conversations about the pros and cons of the deal and its strategic rationale, for example, the senior executive wasn't open to avenues of conversation that challenged the move or entertained other possibilities. What's more, the tenor of these conversations appeared to make some colleagues uncomfortable. The senior executive's poor listening skills were short-circuiting what should have been a healthy strategic debate.

Ferrari says: "Throughout my career, I've observed that good listeners tend to make better decisions, based on better-informed judgments, than ordinary or poor listeners do and hence tend to be better leaders. By showing respect to our conversation partners, remaining quiet so they can speak, and actively opening ourselves up to facts that undermine our beliefs, we can all better cultivate this valuable skill."

Kevin Sharer, CEO of biotech giant Amgen discovered that learning to listen was a turning point in his career. He readily acknowledged that for most of his career he was an awful listener. In the same issue of the McKinsey Quarterly, he says: "I was arrogant throughout my 30s for sure. Maybe into my early 40s. My conversations were all about some concept of intellectual winning and ‘I'm going to prove I'm smarter than you.' It wasn't an evil, megalomania-driven thing; it was mostly because I was a striver, I wanted to get ahead, and getting ahead meant convincing people of my point of view."

He says he shifted, by necessity, to try to become more relaxed in what he was doing and just to be more patient and open to new ideas. He says: "As I started focusing on comprehension, I found that my bandwidth for listening increased in a very meaningful way."

Learning to listen to business-related issues is one thing. Lending a listening and understanding ear to colleagues affected by grief is also an important social skill which, sadly, is often needed at the workplace. In the July 2012 issue of the Journal of Management Inquiry, Yuri Han says that a seemingly rational workplace is, in fact, full of intertwined emotional events, grief being one of them.

However, says Yuri Han, the significance of underlying emotions that employees carry with them to the workplace and the impact of employees' perceived notions toward the organisation about the way management handles employee problems are not recognised and properly understood.

A preparedness to listen also implies an open mind. In an examination of the personality and character traits that can help a marketing manager rise to become a chief marketing officer, Muireann Bolger, in the September/October 2012 issue of The Marketer, emphasises the importance of analytical ability, a good understanding of finance and numbers combined with an open mind to new ideas, and a lateral way of thinking and creativity.