Active Listening: The Power Paradox

[Authored by: Brett Hoogeveen]

Many people define traits like influence and power as the degree to which people are likely to listen to, and take direction from, a person in authority.  While this perspective may hold validity – especially at a snap moment in time – UC Berkeley psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner shares new research in his 2017 book The Power Paradox that flips that perspective on its head.

Dr. Keltner’s findings make a great follow up to our recent blog post Active Listening Tip: Empathy First by emphasizing the importance of active listening skills to effective leadership.  He shares, as MindSet has found, there to be a power paradox when it comes to being a great active listener: it often seems the higher one’s title the worse our active listening becomes.

As explained in The Power Paradox synopsis, “Enduring power comes from empathy and giving. Above all, power is given to us by other people. This is what we all too often forget, and it is the crux of the power paradox: by misunderstanding the behaviors that helped us to gain power in the first place we set ourselves up to fall from power. We abuse and lose our power, at work, in our family life, with our friends, because we’ve never understood it correctly—until now. Power isn’t the capacity to act in cruel and uncaring ways; it is the ability to do good for others, expressed in daily life, and in and of itself a good thing.”

MindSet finds that high title people show a tendency to interrupt more often, more frequently appear distracted, use less eye contact, ask fewer questions that indicate genuine interest, and utilize more cynical and biting humor.  Although this is obviously a far cry from being a universal truth, it is a pattern that is seen often enough that it would be wise for those of us in leadership positions to check ourselves to make sure the important skill of active listening is not deteriorating in direct relationship to the size of our office!

It sometimes appears that getting more power within an organization has a similar impact on active listening skills to that of a frontal lobe brain injury.  This is not a good thing.

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