“Well if you would only listen…” “You never listen to me.” “I told you, but obviously you weren’t listening.”
Ah, listening. It seems like such a simple thing to do, but how often have you heard (or said) complaints like those above? Maybe good listening isn’t so simple after all.
So what makes good listening so complex?
If we look to behavioral styles we can find some clues. Observing behaviors through the lens of DISC helps us see that those who exhibit certain styles are demonstrating patterns that can predict how they listen. Many articles like this one on good listening, “How to be a Good Listener”, frame the advice in terms of modifying the behavior to be more effective.
Let’s look at the core styles in the context of effective listening:
High D‘s are oriented around achieving results, and are not shy about making fast decisions or bringing pressure to bear on a situation. If a conversation does not support the high D’s current agenda then that person may lose interest in the conversation. Being forceful by nature the high D is not hesitant to interrupt or walk away when someone is speaking to them. Their observed behavior prioritizes problem solving over social considerations so unless their D is accompanied by a fairly high I don’t expect the high D to be a patient listener. If you want to keep the high D’s attention make your message short, and to the point. Think bullet points, not back-story.
The high I is typically observed to be talkative, but does a talker make a good listener? Not usually. The high I individual is usually counted among the worst listeners. High I’s tend to seek out a lot of verbal interaction, but their focus tends to be more on the appearance they are making, and their social status rather than paying attention to the content of a conversation. When not the one speaking, the classic high I spends the majority of their time thinking of what they are going to say rather than focusing on and considering what is being said to them. A high I with a low S will be talkative and restless in a conversation – they’ll flit around a cocktail party or networking reception making small talk with everyone, but never sticking around in one conversation long enough to absorb much of the conversation because they’re always spotting someone else they “have to say hello to”.
A low S exacerbates the high I’s weak listening ability, but what kind of a listener is a high S? The high S demonstrates behavior that supports good listening: they tend to avoid confrontation, so they are unlikely to interrupt a speaker; they prefer things to move at a slower, steadier pace, and are reticent to upset the status quo – which means you will seldom see a high S walking away from someone who is in the middle of telling a story (no matter how much that story may go on and on). The high S observes, but doesn’t tend to reveal what they have in mind so their focus tends to be on what the other person is saying rather than emulating the high I’s tendency to be thinking up the next interesting thing to say.
Last but not least we have the high C. If high S’s make the best listeners then high C’s are the second best among the core DISC styles. The high C is process-oriented and attentive to detail. A high C makes use of conversations as a form of information gathering. They are very attentive to details revealed in even a casual discussion and will feel compelled to correct any errors made by the person speaking. These could be errors in facts or grammar, but the net result is that the high C can be perceived as snobby for this behavior. The C applies structure to the act of listening, observing rules of politeness and formality, even parliamentary procedure in a group setting. A high C with a fairly high D may interrupt you, but not because of disinterest, they just may feel they have a more efficient way of harvesting the information in the conversation and may tend to turn a chat into a mild interrogation.
Of course other combinations of DISC behavior scores will reveal more complex listening styles, as well as the individual’s preferences for ways of communicating verbally. A high C will prefer to listen to another high C because of the shared affinity for structured presentation and accurate information. One high I may not be listening to the high I that is speaking to them, but they are together more at ease feeding off of each other’s enthusiasm and energy than that same high I might feel in a discussion with a high S.
Going beyond observable behaviors, values and motivators add more complexity to the art of effective listening. If a listener’s values are similar to those of the speaker, then they will be naturally more interested and likely to listen. If they have opposing values, the listener will have a natural tendency to disregard what the speaker is saying. These tendencies may mitigate or aggravate the listening issues predicted by the behavioral styles of the people in question. Once again we find that the Golden Rule falls a bit short when it comes to communication. The effective communicator doesn’t speak to listeners in the manner that the communicator would like to hear, but rather adapts their communication to the listening style preferences of the audience.
To be a great listener able to traverse conversations with colleagues of multiple behavioral profiles and diverse motivations and values generally requires a high degree of emotional intelligence. The more emotionally mature individual may learn how to overcome poor listening skills by developing more empathy for others, and learning to recognize and adapt their behaviors to better suit the situation. They can then be far more effective at listening than one who has not matured yet and is highly self-centered.
Objective assessments give us the ability to measure all of these factors and can be tremendously valuable in predicting effective listening skills and identifying opportunities to coach individuals in improving this ability. For an example of a well-rounded assessment that can be useful in this manner see this sample report.