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Helping a CEO to listen better

'Coach Kriengsak, in our last session I told you that I'd like to practise listening skills with my subordinates," David tells me. "Previously, whenever I had a one-on-one conversation with any of my 10 direct reports, I estimate I spent 80% of time talking and only 20% listening. In our last session I told you I wanted to change that to 50:50 or better."

"David, how did it go?"

"I think I managed to not speak for 50% of the time on most occasions. But the trouble is, I didn't comprehend 100% of what each speaker said to me. In some cases I feel I understood as little as 50%."

"Tell me more."

"Here's what I think was happening. When I was silent while the other person was talking, I wasn't really listening. In fact in my brain was doing something else."

"Could you give me an example?"

"Well, just this morning our VP of sales came to see me to ask about cutting prices in order to meet our sales revenue targets for this year," David explains. "I found myself thinking about what to say next. I wanted to persuade him to maintain our prices so I started mentally reviewing some talking points I could use. Once I'd settled on those, I switched back to listening to him for a while.

"While he was showing me a lot of sales charts, my mind started to wander again. I started thinking about my own experience as a VP of sales. I recalled that in similar situations, my boss was easier to convince.

"When my VP started complaining that the pricing policy I'd set earlier in the year was unjustified, I started to judge him as immature since he had agreed with me at the time.

"At that point I switched back to listening. Even then, in my mind I was anticipating what the consequences would be if I had to reduce prices. What rationale would I offer if the board objected?

"To sum up, I think I was listening well for only 50% of the time."

"David, let me recap what I've been hearing from you," I say. "You said you only paid attention half of the time because in your mind you were doing four things in succession: thinking about what to say next, comparing your VP's situation with your own experience, judging the speaker, and anticipating future consequences."

He nods.

"David, instead of 50% comprehension of what you're hearing, what do you think your goal should be?"

"At least 80%."

"If you could go back in time, how would you react differently in order to achieve that goal?"

"I think I could deal with the four instances you described by taking different approaches, such as the following:

1. Instead of thinking about what to say next, I would have enough confidence in my ability that once I really understood the VP, I would be able to share my rationale to him. Then, we could exchange ideas back and forth. Both of us are professionals and highly experienced. Hence, we should come up with a reasonable solution.

2. Instead of comparing the context with my experience, I should pay attention to him at that moment. This is his story with his frame of reference and it's a different scenario. I have to understand what's happening now from his point of view.

3. Instead of judging him, I should stay neutral. Instead of protecting my ego, I should look at his intention. He had a good intention to achieve the target. I should be thinking, how can I help him -- not how can I win the argument.

4. Instead of anticipating future consequences, I should stay in the present. There will be more time to think about the future. But at that moment, the VP is the most important person as I have decided to spend time with him. I have to pay full attention."

"David, those are great ideas. How do you ensure that you can act on them when you listen to others in the future?"

"Coach, I think I have to do the following:

  • Plan ahead in order to prevent myself from going on autopilot or tuning out. I have to compose myself before spending time with each VP. They are the key people who make things happen, and the more I try to understand them, the more they will try to understand me. Eventually, they will help carry out my vision through successful execution.
  • Recap from time to time. They way you just summarised the four things I did while I wasn't listening well is a good example. I need to recap from time to time in order to ensure that my mind is not wandering."

"All right, David. Let's follow up in our next session."

Kriengsak Niratpattanasai provides executive coaching in leadership and diversity management under the brand TheCoach. He can be reached at Daily inspirational quotations can be found on his Facebook fan page: Previous articles are archived at