Listening Intelligence in Organizations

Listening Intelligence speaks directly to strategic and creative thinking; efficient action and application; and the ability to adapt to people, context, and shifting market dynamics.

Effective learning occurs when we consciously pay attention or truly listen to what we hear. If you don’t focus and listen with intent, the time and effort to learn, and to be taught, is wasted. Most people agree that “hearing” is a sense that enables, but does not cause, listening. The kind of listening we’ll explore in this article is what I call “Listening Intelligence.”

Howard Gardner’s widely accepted definition of intelligence is: “The ability to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings.” (“Frames of Mind, The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” Howard Gardner, Basic Books, Inc., 1985) Wikipedia defines listening as: “the conscious processing of the auditory stimuli that have been perceived through hearing.” Both definitions can apply to individuals and organizations. When combined, Listening Intelligence speaks directly to strategic and creative thinking; efficient action and application; and the ability to adapt to people, context, and shifting market dynamics.

Let’s look closer at Listening Intelligence for individuals and organizations.

For individuals, listening is both flexible and deep. People adapt their listening to the needs and interests of other people and situations. They also probe beneath the surface of what is said to search for underlying ideas, concerns, meaning, and knowledge. Listening Intelligence for individuals is a multi-modal brain function made up of a set of complex skills. It encompasses mindset, art, the emotional state, and body language. A Listening Intelligent individual is like a scuba diver who has both the skill and will to seek hidden treasures.

We define organizational Listening Intelligence as a set of principles and practices that harness the collective brainpower of every employee, at all levels, through improved listening.

Both individual competence and organizational commitment must dovetail for Listening Intelligence to be effective and beneficial through daily practice in the workplace. Accepted and embraced as a core corporate value, Listening Intelligence can cleanse corporate cultures of resentment and politics, improve overall employee morale, connect senior executives with the realities of their business, and uncover new innovations that can transform and rejuvenate an organization.

Unfortunately, inept or inconsistent listening is more the norm. For example, recent research states that employee engagement leads directly to how well people feel and how much they are heard. It shows that 42 percent of employees worldwide say they are not being engaged, and more than $37 billion is lost annually from employee misunderstanding alone. (The Grossman Group Report on Employee Engagement, IDC Research, “$37 Billion: Counting the Cost of Employee Misunderstanding,” survey of 400 British and American corporations, 2008)

Those figures reflect the negative influence poor listening and communication have on not only employee recruitment and retention, but customer loyalty, innovation, and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Case in Point

As company leaders look to connect, collaborate, and operate more efficiently, Listening Intelligence is gaining steam as more people and organizations find better “listening” delivering a wealth of positive benefits. Listening is complex—but it is learnable and relatively easy for each and every employee to understand. Many of the organizations that make listening a priority find the results are downright stunning.

For example, I recently interviewed and wrote a blog post about Corine Jansen, who at the time was Chief Listening Officer of Radboud REshape & Innovation Center of the Radboud University Medical Center in The Netherlands. She explained how the hospital, “…chose to include patients as partners in the treatment team. We wanted more engagement, more respect, and no judgment.”

As a result of making listening a priority and encouraging conversations that are more focused about care, as opposed to just figuring out a cure, doctors became more vulnerable, while patients healed faster and visited the hospital less often. Internally, every single member of the health-care team reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with their jobs. Said Jansen, “Doctors have switched to understand that only the patient is the true expert about his/her body, and the physician’s job is to honor and learn from that knowledge to affect healing. So they might ask the patient, ‘What do you think? Why are you at this hospital?’”

Like many organizations, the Medical Center didn’t start out that way. In fact, it has been working at improving communication through better listening for more than six years. We’ve learned so much from organizations like Jansen’s as we help others develop a Listening Intelligent culture.

The Listening Intelligence Culture

What makes up a Listening Intelligence culture? We’ve outlined the following core principles:

  1. Elevates listening to an organizational initiative and a strategic corporate value.
  2. Begins with and is supported by the executive leadership.
  3. Cultivates organizational health; reduces office politics; and leads to improved efficiency, innovation, and decision-making.
  4. Enables groups to leverage the ideas, experiences, and contributions of all its members.
  5. Fosters unity, collaboration, and a collective sense of purpose.
  6. Recognizes that individuals develop unique listening patterns that can be modified and improved over time with practice.
  7. Places value on the “voice” of each and every person in an organization.
  8. Builds awareness of individuals’ unique listening characteristics.
  9. Accepts that listening encompasses mental, physical, and emotional dynamics.
  10. Is fostered through ongoing coaching and training.

If that’s a portrait of a Listening Intelligence organization, and we know employees both influence and are influenced by the culture, how do we get employees and the organization to sync up? Let’s return to our examination of Listening Intelligence for individuals.

What Is a Listening Intelligent Person?

As Gardner says, “All human beings possess the capacity to develop several intelligences. At any one moment, we will have a unique profile, because of both genetic (heritability) and experiential factors. We should assess people in a way that allows them to be aware of themselves, and to apply their knowledge and skills in familiar and unfamiliar contexts.” (Notes from Howard Gardner lecture at University of Scranton, 2002)

In our research into individual listening preferences, we learned listening is a habit, formed over our lifetime in the brain, body, and emotions. The brain takes in, interprets, stores, and uses information that direct listening. The body displays attention through eye contact, posture, position, and gestures. Finally, emotions are triggered by experiences, biases, and culture that show up in one’s ability and willingness to connect.

The more engrained our habits are, the more we rely upon them, and the harder it is to change them. However, since they are habits, and not styles or types, they are not fixed and can be modified.

What Are the Listening Habits?

There are four main listening habits and more the 40 individualized profiles. The four main habits include:

  1. Inner-Personal: Focuses on what the interaction means for them. Filters through self-interests.
  2. Extra-Personal: Focuses on what the interaction means to others—filters through their interest in other people, groups, and processes.
  3. Problem Solving: Focuses on what the interaction means to an issue or situation. Filters through results and facts.
  4. Conceptualizing: Focuses on big picture ideas, and options. Filters through interest in concepts and possibilities.

When people understand their listening strengths and challenges, they can hone their strengths and learn how to become more proficient in the areas they might not ordinarily use.

The Value of Listening Intelligence

Last year, revenues increased by an average of 22.2 percent for the 2014 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these same companies added new employees at a rate that was five times higher than the national average. (Forbes, January 19, 2014, by Meghan M. Biro)

And then there is this: A survey conducted by The Vitamin Cottage in May 2012 shows that 63 percent of Americans take a vitamin or supplement, but many wish the manufacturers would come up with a vitamin that would improve their significant other’s listening skills!

Organizations of all types are looking to increase productivity and overall performance through ongoing training and coaching of employees and executives alike. And while it’s well understood that better communication provides a multitude of organizations benefits, most of the emphasis is placed on “presenting,” and not listening. Hopefully, this article shares some of the new advancements and thinking around listening that extend beyond traditional “active listening.”

Marian J. Thier is a partner at Listening Impact, which introduces Listening Intelligence principles and services that harnesses the collective brainpower of every employee through improved listening. For more information, visit

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