Critical listening: how to benefit from this misunderstood skill

Critical listening has a bad reputation. When we think about listening, it’s words like ‘active’ and ‘empathetic’ that have positive connotations, but ‘critical’ listening is often considered negatively.

A positive definition

If you look at the definition of the word ‘critical’, you’ll see phrases such as “expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgments”. It’s this definition that encourages the negative perceptions.

However, look at the definition of ‘critique’, and you’ll see “a detailed analysis and assessment”.

For anyone who likes to think in terms of the structure of the English language, you can think of critical listening is a verb, “to analyze and assess”, it really has a very positive connotation!

Simply put, it’s the ability to pay attention to what other people are saying while assessing the validity and value of the information they are conveying. Dick Billows

When to use critical listening

Critical listening is best used when a detailed analysis and assessment is required as the basis for making a decision or a recommendation.

It’s a useful skill, when applied appropriately. There are times when other styles of listening will be more effective. Here are a few examples of activities and the styles of listening to use:

  • Brainstorming or idea generation required open listening (to generating more ideas)
  • Coaching a team member requires empathetic listening (to formulate coaching questions)
  • Taking a break requires appreciative listening (for example, listening to music to relax and enjoy)
  • Evaluating a proposal requires critical listening (to make a decision)

As you’re listening, be aware of how you’re listening, and whether you’re listening in the most appropriate way for the activity you’re undertaking. For more guidance on listening, take a look at how to become a better listener.

The skills of critical listening

When you’re using critical listening to undertake a detailed analysis and assessment, there are 5 specific critical listening skills:

1. Assessing the strength of logic

Logic models in formal project management methodologies are planning tools that define the inputs, outputs, outcomes of a program. They explain the thinking behind program design and show how specific program activities lead to desired results.

You may not be presented with a formal logic model, but you can apply the same idea. As you listen to assess what is being said, consider the strength of logic.

  • Does the proposal start from the right point?
  • Is the structure reasonable?
  • Does each step have a clear connection?
  • Are the inter dependencies clear?
  • Does the resourcing match the activities and timeline?

The specific questions will vary depending on the exact circumstances, the skill is to bring the strength of logic to your critical listening.

2. Checking for assumptions and bias

Look out for the nemesis of logic: assumptions and bias.

An assumption is something that is accepted as true without evidence. The danger is that it’s not true! For example, there may be an assumption that a critical license can be easily secured, or that a key stakeholder will support the initiative, or that budget will be available. As you’re listening, check for assumptions that could be proven wrong.

A bias is a prejudice for or against one person or group (or plan of action), especially in a way considered to be unfair. A bias can be unconscious, and it’s your job as you’re listening critically, to assess for bias and prejudice. Has an alternative option been dismissed to easily? Are recommendations skewed by unconscious prejudice? What are the implications of this?

3. Evaluating the evidence

Listening for evidence is the third specific skill to master.

Evidence can come in many forms: factual, financial, survey data, direct quotations, data from markets and competitors, proof of concepts, etc. Your task, as you’re listening, is to assess the value of the evidence and the extent to which it supports what is being proposed.

Remember to look for gaps in evidence too!

4. Checking for ‘Fit to goals’

We align our work towards certain agreed goals. That’s the intent. However, the reality is more complex. We have short-term and long-term goals. We have different stakeholders with different needs. We have an overall strategy and specific milestones within that strategy. We may also have local, regional and global perspectives. There are many different aspects.

How does what you’re listening to fit to goals? What is it really achieving and what’s missing? Where are the areas of misalignment? Which stakeholders’ needs are not being fully met? What are the consequences of all these points?

5. Assessing for completeness

The final critical listening skill is to assess for completeness. What is not being said? What is not being considered?

In many respects this is the hardest part of critical listening. You need to continue applying the 4 skills above, while also keeping some ‘mental bandwidth’ available for the unsaid.

This ability to analyze what is not being said will often trigger powerful insights that help you to effectively assess the value of what is being said.

Critical listening in summary

Critical listening is essential when you wish to analyze and assess what is being said.

There are 5 specific skills:

  1. Assessing the strength of logic
  2. Checking for assumptions and biases
  3. Evaluating the evidence
  4. Checking for ‘fit to goals’
  5. Assessing for completeness

Practice these 5 skills to develop your critical listening!

For more support to develop your listening skills, including a 5-day plan, take a look at the Chinese character for listening.