“How to Listen” – Think Again, the power of knowing what you don’t know by Adam Grant

By Dafydd Rees

The organisational psychologist Adam Grant is a favourite author of mine. He’s an academic at Wharton Business School in the USA who always writes with a refreshing honesty.

He also wears his wisdom lightly and is, above all, a great storyteller. His insights have made high-profile business figures such as Melinda Gates and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook into influential advocates.  

His new book is called “Think Again, the power of knowing what you don’t know.” It’s the latest of a series of books which have appeared over recent months which set out to explore the concept of human understanding. As we re-assess our definition of knowledge and our capacity for persuasion in a world still reeling from the impact of COVID-19 and political upheaval in the US and UK, I find it a message that is both therapeutic and enlightening.

The importance of an open mind, and accepting the importance of caveat, nuance and contingency in any proposition or argument, is central to Adam’s argument.

Highly unusual for any author, let alone an expert, he is happy to admit to making frequent mistakes himself in the theories set out in some of his previous books. And that’s his point. Making mistakes and changing your mind is to be encouraged, not feared.

“People who are right a lot listen a lot, and they change their mind a lot.”

And it’s the section of his book devoted to the power of listening that particularly chimed with me. A career spent in journalism and now working closely with a range of clients helping shape and refine their messages, has taught me that asking the right questions and most importantly listening to their answers is critically important for any successful communication process. 

The term is “motivational listening.” It involves asking open-ended questions, engaging in reflective listening which empowers a person’s desire and ability to change.

There is robust, statistical evidence that it works in motivating behavioural change in roughly three out of four studies. In resolving relationship conflicts, it’s twice as successful as any standard mediation.     

The central idea is to explain your understanding of other people’s reasons for change and, vitally, inquire about the next steps they plan to take. As Adam Grant admits, missing out that final stage is often the difference between success and failure.

“The idea is not to be a leader or a follower, but a guide.”

But, in the art of influential listening people can sniff a phony a mile off. The conversation needs to start from a position of genuine curiosity. Adam uses the term, “confident humility” to capture the empathetic and attentive approach required. Also essential to any worthwhile communication is the express approval and engagement of the other person or the group involved.  

It’s just one of a series of important insights and practical reflections to be found in this highly readable book.

Time spent being challenged and entertained by Adam Grant’s very human intelligent approach to life and learning is highly recommended.