Be a Better Listener by Keeping Score

Posted 04.10.2009

In my line of work as an executive coach, one of the most frequent opportunities I see for smart and talented leaders to be even better is to improve their listening skills.  What is often the case with really bright people is that they have so many ideas and so much energy  they end up dominating conversations and creating a disconnect with everyone else in the room. You’ve probably seen this.  It happens all the time.

One of my clients is a newly promoted executive in his firm.  He fits the profile I’m talking about.  He is an extremely intelligent guy and an innovator in a very technical and fast moving field.  He is full of ideas and enthusiasm and can’t wait to share his ideas with you.  It’s all really charming in a way.  The problem is that his colleagues and the more senior executives in the firm have complained that he sucks the air out of a conversation by not leaving space for others to contribute.  Not a great situation for long term career development, right?

Score1 With my client’s permission, I want to share with you the technique he’s used to listen more and talk less over the past three months. I know from talking with his colleagues that it’s working and that they’re a lot happier with him now than they were at the beginning of the year. 

So, what’s the magic answer to his rapid improvement? It’s simple really. He’s keeping score. Here’s how he’s doing it and what he’s learned in the process.

A big element of our coaching work is to help my client get up on the balcony and observe how he’s participating in meetings and how others respond to the content and frequency of his comments.  He’s a note taker in meetings so I suggested he use his notes as a tool to help him with self-observation.  Borrowing an idea from the great Chris Argyris of Harvard Business School, I suggested that my client get in the habit of drawing a line down his notes page that separates it into a 1/3 – 2/3 split.  With that set-up, he can use the 2/3 side of the page to take his regular meeting notes and the 1/3 side to make notes about what he’s thinking and saying at different points in the meeting.

He liked that idea and, being the innovator that he is, improved on it.  His boss is very supportive and engaged in his development.  In a conversation with me, the boss told me that the culture in the firm is that the more senior you are the more air time you get in meetings and that my client should pay attention to the ratio of air time usage.  When I passed that observation onto my client, he took it and ran with it.

He has literally started keeping score in meetings by using the 1/3 side of the page to list the people in the meeting and make a hash mark by their name for every time they talk.  He includes himself in the score keeping and when he sees that he has “earned” some time to talk, he’ll use that to make some comments.  I know this sounds a little mechanical, but it’s making a difference on both a tactical and transformative level.  I wish you could have seen how excited my client was the other day when he was showing me his meeting notes with all the hash marks and the difference it was making in the quality of the meetings and how he contributes. 

I asked him to share with me what he’s learned so far from this process and here’s what he noted:

  • He’s paying more attention in meetings.
  • He’s building more on other people’s ideas.
  • He’s learning to distinguish between when it’s worth it to make a comment and when it’s not.
  • He’s noticing that sometimes other people say what he would have said and that that’s not just OK but better.
  • What he does say is usually more relevant than in the past.

What’s also cool about the whole process is that a number of his colleagues have seen him keeping score in meetings and asked what he’s doing. They love it when he tells them he’s working on being a better listener and is doing it by keeping score. Some of them have even adopted the practice themselves.

Imagine what might happen in the world if we all worked to be better listeners.  Keeping score just might be the first step on that path!