A Not-So-Obvious Listening Skill: The Minimal Encourager

Half the time when I share this well-used skill listening skill with someone, the response (unsaid or not) is, “Yeah, that’s obvious.”  I usually smirk or roll my eyes when it’s said.  Amazing how that stops the conversational flow and gains attention. 

FYI:  Effective coaches mix being really supportive, most of the time, with being a tough egg, on occasion.

As a conscious observer, it’s become clear that a huge proportion of people are caught in the knowing-doing gap.  In other words, they understand what they read, but don’t turn that knowledge into action.  Pfeffer and Sutton wrote about this business issue in their book by the same title:  The Knowing-Doing Gap.  They, however, write about it as a fundamental business competency, rather than a listening skill.  The sub-title of their book?  “How smart companies turn knowledge into action.”

On a few occasions, an exec has hired me to follow him around and observe the conversations.  It intrigues me that some of the most useful and so-called obvious skills are rarely accessed.  When I call the client on this omission, it all comes out.  He’s never used that skill before or has no self-awareness of it.

There’s one exception to the use of this skill.  Salespeople who have been well-trained in counselor selling use it all the time–and quite self-consciously.  Their response?  “Very useful skill.”

Minimal encouragers are the subtle, nonverbal, and short verbal actions which encourage the speaker to express him/herself more fully.  They are easy to execute but equally easy to omit. 

The rule: When present, they go unnoticed.  When missing, communication suffers.

They include:

  • eye contact–appropriately looking at the speaker
  • body position–turning around, not sitting behind a desk
  • verbal encouragers–uh-huh, yes, sure, and then
  • gestures–nodding head in agreement, holding up “okay” sign

When I’m coaching with a team, I get permission to intervene in the work process and point out both successes and failures.  That always puts the issue on the table.  Once people see the skill at work they retain it rather quickly.  Some of my clients take a 3X5 reminder into meetings to support themselves.

What’s the importance of minimal encouragers?  They are simple behaviors that convey to the speaker that you are interested in what he or she is saying and you want them to say more.  They are particularly effective in opening conversations and letting the speaker know how he/she is coming across (thus, changing direction or moving to the next point) without being interrupted.  

An interesting fact is that some cultures are socialized into the skill while others have neither experience or knowledge of the skill.  I’m generalizing, but Japanese tend to have the skill down cold, while Indians and Brits are largely unaware.  Americans are a mixed bag, but the majority of business people are largely unaware.  What’s most intriguing is that 30 years ago the majority of American physicians had zip training or ability in the skill, but today nearly every American medical school makes skills such as these part of the physicians’ curriculum.  Groopman’s book, How Doctors Think is filled with examples of such listening skills. Link to original post

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