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Abstract

Listening is associated with and a likely cause of desired organizational outcomes in numerous areas, including job performance, leadership, quality of relationships (e.g., trust), job knowledge, job attitudes, and well-being. To advance understanding of the powerful effects of listening on organizational outcomes, we review the construct of listening, its measurement and experimental manipulations, and its outcomes, antecedents, and moderators. We suggest that listening is a dyadic phenomenon that benefits both the listener and the speaker, including supervisor-subordinate and salesperson-customer dyads. To explain previous findings and generate novel and testable hypotheses, we propose the episodic listening theory: listening can lead to a fleeting state of togetherness, in which dyad members undergo a mutual creative thought process. This process yields clarity, facilitates the generation of novel plans, increases well-being, and strengthens attachment to the conversation partner. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, Volume 9 is January 2022. Please see http://www.annualreviews.org/page/journal/pubdates for revised estimates.
LISTENING AT WORK 1
IN PRESS 30/7/2021
Volume 9 of the
Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior
The Power of Listening at Work
Avraham N. Kluger,1 Guy Itzchakov2
1 Jerusalem School of Business Administration, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
2 Department of Human Services, University of Haifa
To cite: Kluger, A. N., & Itzchakov, G. (in press). The power of listening at work. Annual
Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior (9).
Avraham N. Kluger https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1910-7364
Guy Itzchakov https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1516-6719
Author Note
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Avraham N. Kluger,
Jerusalem School of Business Administration, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mt. Scopus,
Jerusalem 91905, ISRAEL Email: avik@savion.huji.ac.il
The preparation of this review was supported by a grant to the first author from the
Recanati Fund at the Jerusalem School of Business Administration, Hebrew University of
Jerusalem; and grants to both authors from the Israel Science Foundation (grant numbers 928/17
and 460/18 for the first and second author, respectively).
LISTENING AT WORK 2
ABSTRACT
Listening is associated with and a likely cause of desired organizational outcomes in
numerous areas, including job performance, leadership, quality of relationships (e.g., trust), job
knowledge, job attitudes, and well-being. To advance understanding of the powerful effects of
listening on organizational outcomes, we review the construct of listening, its measurement and
experimental manipulations, and its outcomes, antecedents, and moderators. We suggest that
listening is a dyadic phenomenon that benefits both the listener and the speaker, including
supervisor-subordinate and salespersoncustomer dyads. To explain previous findings and
generate novel and testable hypotheses, we propose the Episodic Listening Theory: listening can
lead to a fleeting state of togetherness, in which dyad members undergo a mutual creative
thought process. This process yields clarity, facilitates the generation of novel plans, increases
well-being, and strengthens attachment to the conversation partner.
Keywords: Listening, Relationships, Performance, Workplace, Change
LISTENING AT WORK 3
The Power of Listening at Work
Considering the correlations between perceptions of listening and leadership, “the
weakest correlation reported in the literature was r = .50” (Kluger & Zaidel 2013).
INTRODUCTION
High-quality listening brings a cornucopia of positive outcomes for speakers, listeners,
teams, and organizations. These benefits include superior job performance, better leadership,
trust, intimacy, well-being, and reduced burnout. Surprisingly, though, listening and its potential
outcomes have received relatively little attention within organizational psychology and
organizational behavior. Moreover, while employers and recruiters prize workers and candidates
with good listening skills, listening is mostly missing in management education. Therefore, in
this review, we draw on evidence from diverse fields, including marketing, nursing, law, social
work, social and clinical psychology, and education.
In what follows, we review evidence concerning listening in the work context. Our
review reveals three main gaps in the literature. First, understanding of the antecedents of good
listening, including its training, remains patchy. Second, most listening research lack
consideration of boundary conditionsi.e., identifying the forces and costs that prevent people
from listening well. Third, the existing theories do not take sufficient account of the dyadic
nature of listening. We address these gaps with our proposed original theoretical framework. Our
framework integrates existing theories and further suggests that listening facilitates the creation
of a state (an episode) of togetherness. Togetherness is a property of the speaker-listener dyad.
While in this state, dyad members are open-minded in a manner that facilitates creativity and
change (Figure 1).
LISTENING AT WORK 4
We first review definitions and operationalizations of listening. We then summarize the
evidence for outcomes of listening in the workplace. Following this, we discuss the antecedents
of listening and the boundary conditions for listening’s effects. We then build on existing
theories to propose a mechanism explaining why listening has such powerful organizational
outcomes. We conclude with implications for theory and practice and a summary of open
questions.
LISTENING: THE CONSTRUCT AND ITS OPERATIONALIZATIONS
Definition
The term listening can be used in so many ways that it is unhelpful to try and offer a
single definition. Instead, scholars suggest that the construct be defined within the specific
investigation context (Worthington & Bodie 2018). Accordingly, we focus on listening during
conversations. This focus excludes listening to music, lectures, or instructions, listening while
learning a foreign language, and hearing ability.
We take listening as encompassing three causally related constructs: (a) unobservable
behaviors of the listener (e.g., comprehension), which influence (b) observable behaviors of the
listener (e.g., gaze, eye contact, interruptions), which in turn inform (c) perceptions and
evaluations of the speaker (e.g., feeling listened to). Each construct can help shape the
understanding of listening, and so we define them all.
First, the set of listeners unobservable behaviors is, by itself, a multi-dimensional
construct, comprising attention, comprehension, and benevolent intention (Itzchakov et al 2017,
Rogers & Roethlisberger 1991/1952). We define these, respectively, as the degree to which the
listener focuses on the speakers message; succeeds in adopting the speakers cognitive and
LISTENING AT WORK 5
emotional frame of reference (Rogers 1951); and intends, without judgment, to help the speaker
grow psychologically (gain insights and solve their issues on their own; Rogers 1951).
The better listeners attention, comprehension, and intention, the more likely they are to
engage in observable behaviors signaling good listening to the speaker. Overt signals of good
listening include paraphrasing (Nemec et al 2017), reflecting feelings (Nemec et al 2017), asking
relevant (and ideally open-ended) questions (Huang et al 2017, Van Quaquebeke & Felps 2018),
and asking for clarification or repetition where needed (Lycan 1977). They may also include
following a receptiveness recipe, such as hedging, that indicates a non-judgemental attitude
(Yeomans et al 2020), keeping silent for a few seconds after the speaker complete their speech
turn (Curhan et al 2021), and, perhaps, asking sensitive questions (Hart et al 2021).
Overt listening behaviors may also take the form of backchannel responsesverbal or
nonverbal reactions signaling the listener’s interest or attention without interrupting the speaker’s
flow (Bavelas et al 2000). These may be generic or specific, where the former simply encourage
the speaker to continue (e.g., nodding, emitting expressions such as “Uh-huh,” or orienting one’s
body toward the speaker (cf. "nonverbal immediacy," in Bodie et al 2014), while the latter
convey understanding in a manner congruent with the speakers narrative (e.g., wincing at an
embarrassing story or laughing at a joke; Bavelas et al 2000). Overt verbal or nonverbal signals
may also indicate poor listening: changing the topic, using a tone that conveys impatience,
offering unsolicited advice, dual-tasking (e.g., looking at ones smartphone), physically
disengaging from the conversation, or raising an eyebrow may be a sign of poor listening,
signaling that the listener doubts the speaker and is already preparing a response, rather than
focusing on the speaker’s message. Note, however, that listening as overt behavior is a formative
construct, where the sum of its elements defines the phenomenon. This is because no specific
LISTENING AT WORK 6
overt behavior is necessary or sufficient to indicate listening. For example, failing to make eye
contact and giving advice are considered signals of poor listening; but good listening can take
place without eye contact (e.g., over the telephone), and timely advice may be construed as good
listening (Zenger & Folkman 2016).
Finally, the listeners overt behavior influences the speakers perceptions and evaluations
of the listening received. We define perceptions and evaluations as speakers’ holistic judgments
of the listeners behaviors and their impact on the speakers. This judgment ranges from poor to
good
1
. Speakers tend to form a holistic judgment composed of both perceptions and evaluations,
even though they may be able to differentiate between perceptions of listener’s behaviors (e.g.,
eye contact) and their effect (e.g., “I felt understood”).
The three listening constructs unobservable listener behavior, observable listener
behavior, and speaker perceptionsare strongly, positively, and causally related to each other, as
discussed above, but are not isomorphic (for more details, see Figure S1 in the Supplementary
Material). Considering these three constructs facilitates understanding the antecedents of
listening (e.g., anything that affects the listener’s attention), the meaning of objective measures
of listening, and listening-induced outcomes (e.g., customers’ evaluation of a salesperson’s
listening may affect their purchasing decisions).
To complete the definition, we offer a few final thoughts. First, because listening in the
present review takes place in the context of conversations, listening is distinct from related
constructs such as empathy (Kellett et al 2006), perspective-taking (Lui et al 2020), rudeness
1
Such judgements are likely to be bi-polar. Thus, an assessment that someone’s listening is not poor does
not entail an assessment that the person’s listening is good. For evidence, see Table S1 in the Supplemental
Materials.
LISTENING AT WORK 7
(Porath & Erez 2007), feeling understood (Reis et al 2017), responsiveness (Reis et al 2017), and
respect (Frei & Shaver 2002). These constructs co-occur with listening but can also occur outside
the conversational context. For example, an employee may show empathy by hugging a crying
co-worker or taking a colleague’s perspective by buying them a present they desired. Second,
because we focus on the context of spoken conversation, exchanges occurring in written form,
such as via email or text messages, are beyond the scope of this review.
2
Third, listening is
typically construed as an individual-level, or actually dyadic, phenomenon (e.g., a supervisor
listening to an employee), and that is our main concern here. However, listening can also take
place at the team or organization level, with responsive leadership creating a team-level
(Johnston et al 2011) or organization-level (Macnamara 2015) listening climate.
Finally, our definition of listening should not be confused with Carl Rogers’s active
listening. According to Rogers, active listening is non-judgemental, empathic, and creative. Yet,
the term active listening got co-opted by businesses to connote a set of techniques (e.g.,
paraphrasing) that lost the meaning implied by Rogers (Tyler 2011). Indeed, Rogers warned that
the technique would not be effective if not based on a proper attitude (which we label intention).
The essence of the attitude is that mere understanding of speakers that allows them to understand
themselves and solve their issues (1951). Due to the misuse of the term active listening, we shun
it. Note, however, the active listening techniques (e.g., paraphrasing) are subsets of observable
listening behaviors, which are only one part of our definition of listening (see above and Figure
S1).
2
On the other hand, conversations that take place via sign language or other forms of communication used
by the deaf or hard of hearing do involve listening as we understand it. Nevertheless, listening in conversations may
have many commonalities with responding to written exchanges, but this issue is beyond the scope of our paper.
LISTENING AT WORK 8
Measurement
Listening has been measured from three perspectives: (a) listener self-reports (e.g., “I was
able to listen with an open mind”; Cho et al 2016); (b) objective coding of behaviors (e.g.,
“asking patient's opinion, checking their understanding, and comments such as 'Go on, tell me
more.'”; Levinson et al 1997); and (c) speakers perceptions (e.g., "When my current supervisor
listens to me, most of the time, s/he listens to me attentively"; Kluger & Bouskila-Yam 2018).
Each method has advantages and disadvantages.
Measuring listening through self-reported behavior is useful when the goal is to
understand the formation of self-perceptions of listening. Yet this methods utility is limited
because listeners may not know how the speakers perceive them (Bodie et al 2014). The second
approach, coding listening behavior, has the apparent benefit of objectivity. Yet, it might be
dissociated from the speakers perception, the proximal antecedent of organizational outcomes.
Finally, the speakers perception of listening is relatively straightforward to measure and
typically yields high reliabilities. For a review of listening scales used in work contexts, see
Table S1 in the Supplementary Material. Nevertheless, the discriminant validity of measures of
perceived listening is yet to be established.
Manipulations
Listening manipulations rely on listening instructions, distracting listeners, recruiting
trained listeners, time-sharing, vignettes, and training employees in listening, where some
training studies rely on quasi-experiments. Overall, the data indicate that it is relatively easy to
manipulate listening by distracting listeners (e.g., Itzchakov et al 2017). In contrast, it is not clear
how to create a better-than-average listening condition in the laboratory. To circumvent this
difficulty, we used trained listeners (e.g., Itzchakov et al 2017), vignettes (e.g., Itzchakov et al
LISTENING AT WORK 9
2020), recall (Hurwitz & Kluger 2017), and asking speakers to share a story versus a description
(Itzchakov et al 2016). All the manipulations suffer from some validity threats. Distraction might
be a manipulation of rudeness, employing trained listeners may reflect selection, vignettes lack
ecological validity, recall might be biased, and asking speakers to share stories manipulates the
speaker’s behavior rather than the listener’s.
The data also suggest that listening training effectively changes trainees’ (listeners’)
behavior (e.g., Rautalinko & Lisper 2004). However, training evaluations did not show that
speakers (e.g., customers, patients, subordinates) who interact with trainees notice any change.
Attending to this concern, Joussemet et al (2018) proposed a protocol for testing the effect of
training parents in listening by measuring perceptions of parents’ listening among teachers and
children. Similar protocols could become a gold standard for studying listening experimentally in
organizations. Finally, a couple of non-training interventions have been shown to have the
potential to create better-than-average listening perceptions among patients rating their
physicians: physicians systematically scheduling time for consultations (Grimholt et al 2015) and
providing physicians daily feedback on listening behavior (Indovina et al 2016). For more details
regarding listening manipulations, see Table S2 in the Supplementary Material.
CONSEQUENCES OF LISTENING AT WORK
The quality of listening has powerful effects in the workplace. Here, we outline the main
outcomes in the realms of performance, leadership, relationships, job knowledge, job attitudes,
well-being, and other employee-focused outcomes (voice, engagement, and burnout). Most
studies reviewed here were conducted in the United States. Where relevant, we highlight studies
conducted in other countries to emphasize the cross-cultural generalizability of the findings.
LISTENING AT WORK 10
When data is based on meta-analyses, or the effect sizes were surprising, we report exact r
values; otherwise, when we report correlations, they are significant unless we indicate otherwise.
Performance
Job-performance behaviors and outcomes are multifaceted. They include (a) the focal
task or technical performance, (b) organizational citizenship behavior or contextual performance
(c) counterproductive performance, and (d) proactive or adaptive behavior (Dalal et al 2020). We
review each in turn, drawing on literature from different fields.
Focal task or technical performance. The role of listening in job performance has been
frequently addressed in marketing. In a meta-analysis (Itani et al 2019), k = 16, N = 3,780, the
average correlation between listening by the salesperson and sales volume was 𝒓 = .38 and 𝛒 =
.47 (corrected for unreliability). The majority of these studies were based on the salespersons
self-reported performance. However, one study correlated listening and (unspecified)
quantitative sales as a performance measure, and reported r = .50 (Bergeron & Laroche 2009).
Another study, not included in the meta-analysis, reported r = .26 between employees
perceptions of listening in their manufacturing plant and the percentage change in the plants net
income (Johnston & Reed 2017). Both studies suggest that listening is positively correlated with
financial performance. Similarly, a qualitative study of several start-up ventures in Brazil noted
that conflict is inherent in those companies, but that “ventures in which at least one of the
founding partners didnt actively listen ended up resulting either in the departure of one of the
entrepreneurs or the failure of the enterprise” (Sarfati et al 2020).
Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB). Studies in Germany have found that
employee perceptions of how well their supervisors listen to them positively correlate with their
OCB (Lloyd et al 2015). This effect was preserved even after controlling for potential extraneous
LISTENING AT WORK 11
variables (Schroeder 2016). Also, Israeli employee perceptions of how well their teammates
listen to them positively correlate with helping OCB (Kluger et al 2021).
Counterproductive performance. Poor listening is associated with various indicators of
undesirable organizational outcomes. In one study, listening quality, coded from patient-
physician interactions, negatively correlated with malpractice lawsuits for primary physicians; A
similar but not significant correlation was found for surgeons (Levinson et al 1997). In another
study, teenagers working in retail or service industries were asked, “Did you get any of these
injuries at work? (including cut, scrape, burn, bruise, a broken bone, infection, and head injury).
Those who answered affirmatively were more likely to report that their supervisor does not listen
well to them (Zierold 2016). Japanese courts’ likelihood of convicting physicians for malpractice
was higher when there was no evidence that the physician listened or provided explanations to
patients and families (Hagihara & Tarumi 2007). However, this report did not tease out the roles
of listening and explaining.
Looking broadly at workplace climate, Israeli nurses’ perceptions of the listening climate
at their workplace correlated negatively with their reports of exposure to disruptive behaviors at
work, including negative remarks, verbal insults, humiliation, and sexual harassment (Shafran-
Tikva et al 2019). Also, German employees’ perceptions of their supervisor’s listening are
negatively correlated with turnover intentions (Lloyd et al 2015). Finally, using a longitudinal
design, Kriz et al (2021) showed that managerial listening predicts lower levels of affective job
insecurity among employees in a company going through layoffs, where the effect is mediated
by perceived control.
Proactive and adaptive behavior. A quasi-experimental study on the effect of training
psychiatric nurses in listening showed that during shifts of trained nurses, relative to controls,
LISTENING AT WORK 12
physical restraining of patients was reduced by 26% (Gonzalez 2009).
3
We think this outcome
reflects proactive behavior because the nurses found ways to calm the patients without physical
force.
Moreover, across five studies, N = 744, the average effect of listening on creativity was 𝑟
= .39 (Castro et al 2018). These studies included a laboratory experiment showing that listening
improves fluency, originality, and flexibility in generating ideas. Two of the studies, conducted
in Israel and Germany, showed positive correlations between employees perceptions of their
supervisor’s listening and self-reported creativity.
One of the studies included in the meta-analysis of listening and sales mentioned above
(Itani et al 2019) hints that listening is related to adaptive behavior. In that study (Giacobbe et al
2013), a latent variable indexed, among other measures, by self-reported listening predicted a
latent variable indexed, among other measures, by salespersons adaptive selling behavior
assessed by their supervisor. However, the study did not test whether the supervisors assessment
of the salespersons adaptability correlates with the customers listening evaluation.
A set of studies by Curhan et al (2021) suggests that silent pauses after one conversation
party speaks increase value creation in bilateral negotiations, which is a form of proactive and
adaptive behavior. Curhan et al. used two methodologies: observational studies in which the
duration of silent moments was objectively recorded; and experimental manipulations in which
participants were instructed to wait 20 seconds after their partner finished speaking. They found
3
While that study’s author concluded that the effect was not significant, our consideration of the low
statistical power and a recalculation of the reported frequencies suggest otherwise.
LISTENING AT WORK 13
that extended silences increase value creation “by interrupting default, fixed-pie thinking and
fostering a more deliberative mindset.
The evidence reviewed above for the association of listening with job performance has
two implications. First, listening leads to positive performance outcomes for listeners, speakers,
and consequently, the organization. For example, as we have noted, good listening is associated
with higher sales, or lower malpractice suits, indicating that a good listener is a good performer.
Good listeners also improve the performance of the speakers interacting with them. For example,
subordinates whose managers listen well demonstrate higher OCB, higher creativity, and lower
turnover intention (preceding perhaps actual voluntary turnover, detrimental to the organization).
The second implication is that listening is arguably a facet of job performance, even if it
is not perceived or measured as such by organizations. According to one definition, job
performance includes the “things that people actually do, actions they take, that contribute to the
organization’s goals” (Campbell & Wiernik 2015, p. 48). Among the things employees do on the
job is to communicate. Regretfully, the prevailing view of communication as job performance
(Campbell & Wiernik 2015) seems to focus only on sending messages (i.e., talking), ignoring the
fact that communication is a two-way process. Indeed, both listening and talking contribute to
people’s interpersonal influence (Ames et al 2012).
Taking this idea a step further, our review might suggest that listening may be mapped to
the adaptive behavior facet of job performance. Aguinis (2019), in a taxonomy of adaptive
performance, argues that it includes (among other things) demonstrating adaptability in the
interpersonal, cultural, and physical domains. Interpersonal adaptability, in turn, pertains to
listening and being open-minded (Aguinis 2019). These ideas await closer scrutiny in future job-
performance research.
LISTENING AT WORK 14
Leadership
Listening coupled with question asking has been theorized to be a primary predictor of
leadership effectiveness (Van Quaquebeke & Felps 2018). In multiple studies, perceptions of a
targets listening yielded positive and high correlations with perceptions of the same targets
leadership. This is true even in studies that controlled for same-source bias. For example, in one
study, communication undergraduates who did not previously know each other worked on a team
project for at least six meetings. Then, each team member was randomly selected to rank all
others on either listening or leadership. The rankings were correlated at r = .50 across 23 teams
(Bechler & Johnson 1995). In separate studies, those researchers found correlations exceeding r
= .70 between perceptions of listening and leadership when they employed coders to observe
communication within teams (e.g., Johnson & Bechler 1998), suggesting that listening
contributes to leadership emergence. Interestingly, Ames et al. (2012) found that people who
were rated highest on interpersonal influence were perceived both to speak well and listen well,
such that listening augments the benefit of speaking well.
Iranian managers’ perceptions of their supervisor’s listening were correlated at .56 with
their perceptions of their supervisor’s transformational leadership (Sharifirad 2013). A similar
result was found among Israeli employees who rated their supervisor on leader’s consideration
(Kluger & Zaidel 2013). That study differentiated between constructive and destructive listening
(Kluger & Bouskila-Yam 2018) and found that constructive listening was the best predictor of
leader’s consideration, r = .71. Thus, across cultures and designs, perceptions of listening covary
strongly with perceptions of leadership.
Relationships
LISTENING AT WORK 15
Listening also seems to be a precursor of various relationship outcomes, such as trust,
intimacy, and relational satisfaction.
Trust. Studies of various organizational relationships have linked listening with trust,
including subordinates and supervisors (Stine et al 1995), patients and physicians (Keating et al
2004), customers and salespeople (Bergeron & Laroche 2009), and mock theft suspects and
Dutch police-detective interviewers (Beune et al 2009). However, we found only one experiment
suggesting that good listening increases trust (Korsgaard et al 1995). Yet, trust may also lead to
better listening, making the causality reciprocal.
Intimacy. While intimacy is not usually thought of as a feature of work, it is relevant to
all contexts, including work (Kluger et al 2021). Kluger et al (2021) found among Israeli co-
workers that perception of listening, but not speaking ability, predicts intimacy. Thus, unlike
influence that appears to be codetermined by speaking and listening abilities, intimacy depends
mostly on listening. Importantly, this effect was also found when listening was reported by one
teammate and intimacy by another.
Relational satisfaction. Listening is positively associated with relational satisfaction, as
reported by customers, patients, and employees. Customers ratings of their salesperson’s
listening correlated with their satisfaction with the salesperson (Aggarwal et al 2005).
Salespeople’s self-reported listening is also associated with their perception of the quality of
their relationship with their customers (Drollinger & Comer 2013). Patients ratings of their
physician’s listening are also positively associated with their satisfaction. One study with over
58,000 patients and covering 28 medical specialties found a strong positive correlation between
perceived physician listening and patients’ global evaluations of the physician (Quigley et al
2014). Another study, with a nationally representative sample of ~71,000 patients, found that this
LISTENING AT WORK 16
effect remains when controlling for a host of other predictors, including thoroughness and
carefulness in the physician’s examination and treatment (Tak et al 2015).
Arendt et al (2019) operationalized employees’ ratings of their supervisor’s listening as
mindful communication (e.g., “In conversations my supervisor first listens to what I have to say,
before forming his/her own opinion”). This measure correlated at r = .60 with relational
satisfaction with the supervisor. However, an experimental effect of a leader’s listening on
satisfaction with the leader was found only among American but not among French and
Moroccan participants (Es-Sabahi 2015), hinting that listening effects may be moderated by
culture.
Job Knowledge and Cognitions
Most existing quantitative studies of the association between listening and job knowledge
lack rigor; they rely on self-reports prone to bias. For example, in one study, nurses’ self-reports
of listening to people, as opposed to listening to facts (see footnote 6), were associated with self-
reports of knowledge of domestic violence and hospital policies (Chapin et al 2013). However,
the potential effects of listening on knowledge can be gleaned from observations, quantitative
studies in non-work domains, qualitative work, and theory.
Physicians have observed that “If you listen, the patient will tell you the diagnosis”
(Holmes 2007). Kraut et al (1982) suggested that the more listeners transmit verbal and non-
verbal signals of listeningbackchannel informationthe more speakers adapt their speech to
increase listeners understanding. Thus, listening increases the amount of information conveyed
and the extent to which the listener understands the speakers intention. In the realm of
education, learning to listen well may involve “unlearning” processes of knowledge that the
LISTENING AT WORK 17
teacher has internalized. This, in turn, may lead, paradoxically, to improved learning on the part
of the teacher. For example,
Henderson (1996) reported on his undergraduate teaching that: At first I was surprised
How could I, an expert in geometry, learn from students? But this learning has continued
for 20 years and I now expect its occurrence. In fact, as I expect it more and more and
learn to listen more effectively to them, I find that a larger portion of the students in the
class are showing me something about geometry that I have never seen before (Arcavi &
Isoda 2007).
Good listeners may also learn ways to avoid trouble. According to the emotional
broadcaster theory, listeners gain valuable knowledge for protecting themselves by learning how
to avoid errors committed by the speaker. Moreover, an updated version of the emotional
broadcaster theory suggests that good listeners enable speakers to get to their own storys
emotional core and address the story’s violation of preexisting beliefs, leading to an emotional
reaction and knowledge gain (Harber et al 2014). Thus, listening increases the listener’s
knowledge and the speaker’s insight.
According to theory and experiments, listening also promotes the cognitions of the
speaker by improving memory, self-knowledge (Pasupathi & Hoyt 2010), balanced point of view
(Itzchakov & Kluger 2017, Itzchakov et al 2017), and reflective self-awareness (Itzchakov et al
2018). Building on Bavelas et al (2000) and others, Pasupathi (2001) theorized that listeners and
speakers co-construct a conversation such that the co-construction changes the speakers
memory of the narrated experience and, in turn, shapes how speakers think about themselves
(i.e., their identity). Put differently, good listeners induce speakers to recall more elements of
their narrated event, which eventually becomes part of the speakers’ self-knowledge. Poor
LISTENING AT WORK 18
listening, on the other hand, constrains the materials the speaker will share. This constraining
causes the speakers self-knowledge to become fragmented and possibly disconnected from the
narrated experiences.
Finally, listening may improve the speakers cognitive flexibility. Dōgen Zenji, a 13th-
century Buddhist monk, observed, When you say something to someone, he may not accept it,
but do not try to make him understand it intellectually. Do not argue with him; just listen to his
objections until he himself finds something wrong with them. (Suzuki 1995). Indeed, in a series
of experiments, Itzchakov et al (2017) found that Israeli speakers who experienced good
listening considered both pros and cons of the same attitudinal object (e.g., their fitness to
become managers in the future), and exhibited more complex and less extreme attitudes. Another
study found a similar effect among Israeli employees reporting their attitudes towards their
supervisors (Itzchakov & Kluger 2017). According to Carl Rogers, such complexity is adaptive
in that it allows the person to “establish realistic and harmonious relationship with people and
situations” (Rogers & Roethlisberger 1991/1952). Along these lines, Israeli engineers
perceptions of their mentor’s listening correlated positively with their sense of role clarity and
negatively with confusion (Cohen 2013).
Job Attitudes
Perceptions of listening are positively and strongly associated with two fundamental job
attitudesjob satisfaction and organizational commitment. Field studies suggest that managers
listening behaviors positively correlate with their subordinates’ job satisfaction (e.g., Tangirala &
Ramanujam 2012) and commitment to the organization (e.g., Tucker & Turner 2015). In an
experimental study, Korsgaard et al (1995) found that leaders active listening behavior
increased their subordinates commitment to their leaders decision.
LISTENING AT WORK 19
Well-being
There is abundant evidence that people’s well-being improves when others listen well to
them. For example, nurses’ perceptions of their manager’s listening were positively correlated
with their self-efficacy and sense of empowerment (Tangirala & Ramanujam 2012). Several
experiments showed that Israeli speakers who conversed with good listeners saw a rise in
psychological safety (Castro et al 2018, Castro et al 2016, Itzchakov et al 2016) and a decline in
state-social anxiety (Itzchakov et al 2016, Itzchakov et al 2018, Itzchakov & Kluger 2017,
Itzchakov et al 2017). Managers’ active listening behavior and psychological safety mediated the
effect of transformational leadership on Iranian employees’ well-being (Sharifirad 2013).
Caregivers of patients with a terminal illness who reported that the physicians listened to their
needs and views about the patient’s illness or medical treatment were less depressed than those
who said they did not listen (Emanuel et al 2000).
Other important outcomes of listening are reduced burnout and its proxies. The
perceptions of listening were negatively correlated with burnout in samples of Israeli, Arab,
Hungarian, and North American students (Pines et al 2002). Swedish managers good listening
behavior predicted less emotional exhaustion among their employees (Theorell et al 2013).
Finally, Japanese employees who worked under managers with high listening skills reported less
stress than employees whose managers had low listening skills (Mineyama et al 2007).
Another aspect of well-being promoted by listening is work engagement. Icelandic
managers’ listening positively predicted higher work engagement among their employees,
particularly in the dedication dimension (Jonsdottir & Kristinsson 2020). Another study found
reduced work engagement among employees who perceived their managers as distracted by their
smartphones when in the employee’s presence, a phenomenon termed “boss phubbing” (phone
LISTENING AT WORK 20
snubbing). Boss phubbing’s effect on employee engagement was mediated by reduced
psychological safety and trust (Roberts & David 2017).
Interestingly, there is evidence that when people listen well, their own well-being also
improves. For instance, people with a chronic disease who were trained to support their peers
through active listening reported a significant improvement in self-esteem and self-efficacy, with
even stronger effects for the trained listeners than those who received their support (Schwartz &
Sendor 1999). Similarly, customer service employees who participated in listening training
reported decreased state anxiety and an increased sense of competence when dealing with
difficult customers (Itzchakov 2020). Relatedly, negotiators perceived mediators who used active
listening techniques as having higher efficacy than mediators who used other methods (Fischer-
Lokou et al 2016).
Moreover, the practice of listening may change the listener, as found in research on the
Listener scheme in the UKa peer support program to reduce suicide in prisons (Perrin &
Blagden 2014). Prison inmates who volunteer to become listeners receive several weeks of
training from the Samaritans, a suicide-prevention and mental health charity. They then provide
supportive listening to their peers, who can request listening any time of the day, including
through a “Listener phone” during nighttime hours. Interviews with the listening volunteers
suggest that the program promotes their well-being, sense of meaning, and purpose, empowers
them, and provides them with a positive shift in identity (Perrin & Blagden 2014).
Voice Behavior, Inclusion, and Diversity
Ample evidence supports the importance of promoting voice in organizations. Tangirala
and Ramanujam (2012) found that managers listening behavior positively correlated with
employees voice, or sense of their influence at work. Moreover, executives’ willingness to listen
LISTENING AT WORK 21
was one of the two most frequently mentioned contributors by middle managers when deciding
to share new strategic ideas with their top management (Dutton et al 1997)
We did not find studies of the role of listening in inclusion and diversity in work settings.
Hence, we extrapolate from findings in social and political psychology. Itzchakov et al (2020)
found that speakers reported less prejudiced attitudes towards various outgroups when listeners
exhibited high-quality (relative to moderate-quality) listening. Specifically, listening increased
speakers self-insight and openness to change when disclosing prejudiced attitudes. These effects
were observed in speakers from both the United Kingdom and Israel. Consistent findings were
observed by Kalla and Broockman (2020); conversations characterized by non-judgmental
listening reduced exclusionary attitudes towards illegal immigrants and transgender people
compared to conversations that contained arguments. Furthermore, the effect lasted for several
months.
ANTECEDENTS OF GOOD LISTENING
An important question is what leads to good listening, or, conversely, what prevents
people from listening well. Variables that have been identified as antecedents of listening include
the availability of attention resources, training, and authenticity or genuineness.
Attention. Listening requires a scarce resource: attention. Therefore, any stimuli
competing for or exhausting the listener’s attention will reduce the quality of listening. These
include distractions, stress, and speech content that is hard to process.
Both distraction and stress are well-established antecedents of poor listening. Potential
sources of distraction can be external, such as flickering screens (Castro et al 2018, Itzchakov et
al 2017) and text messages (Itzchakov et al 2018, Lopez-Rosenfeld et al 2015), or internal, as
when trying to listen while performing a cognitive task (Pasupathi & Hoyt 2010, Pasupathi &
LISTENING AT WORK 22
Rich 2005). Stress, too, can make it difficult to listen effectively. However, the negative effects
of stress can be reduced. For instance, psychological detachment from work predicts active
listening on the following day (Mojza et al 2011). Mindfulness, which has been shown to help
people regulate negative emotions, correlates positively with listening (Jones et al 2019).
Listening to some content is less demanding in terms of attention and cognitive resources.
A speaker’s perception that a specific teammate listens well to them correlates positively with
that teammate’s perception of the speaker’s speech quality (Kluger et al 2021). Speakers who
share personal stories enjoy better listening than speakers who share descriptive content
(Itzchakov et al 2016). Listeners may listen with more attention when the content addresses their
needs. For example, the need to belong motivates people to listen to emotional self-disclosures,
but not to descriptive self-disclosures (Hackenbracht & Gasper 2013).
Some organizations have experimented with ways of increasing organizational-level
attention. For example, Richards (2014) reports on an initiative by Radboud University Medical
Centre in the Netherlands to appoint a listening officer, whose job is to listen to patients and
family members about their concerns, fears, and uncertainties. Listening officers can devote their
full attention to patients and families. They do not attempt to solve patients’ problems but instead
share their insights with department heads, who often institute new procedures to address
patients’ recurring concerns. Richards (2014) also found that being listened to is itself
therapeutic. Macnamara (2015) notes that to improve listening at the organization level,
organizations need to construct an architecture of listening containing specific policies,
structures, technologies, and resources devoted to listening, and to ensuring that listeners have
the time and mental space to listen with attention (Macnamara 2015).
LISTENING AT WORK 23
Training. Listening training improves listening according to the results of experiments
and quasi-experiments, reviewed in Table 2 in the Supplementary Material. For example,
Spanish nurses trained for 25 hours in relaxation and communication skills, including listening
and empathy, showed increased listening abilities, empathizing, non interrupting, and emotion
regulation (Garcia de Lucio et al 2000). The drawback of all the available data is that it is unclear
whether speakers interacting with trainees notice any change.
Authenticity. As Rogers (1951) observed, authenticity is critical for effective listening.
This may be difficult in the work context, where individuals and organizations may have to listen
to numerous people, including customers, stakeholders, and citizens. Often, listening in such
contexts becomes instrumental, aimed at serving the organizations goals and interests instead of
conveying an attitude of genuine caring, openness, and curiosity (Tyler 2011). In an effort to
address this problem, organizations may be tempted to call for so-called active listening in a
mechanistic way that betrays Rogers’s intention (Tyler 2011). To avoid this trap, organizations
need to facilitate a climate of autonomy and openness (Itzchakov & Weinstein 2021). As Lipari
(2004): “listening to the alterity of the other involves giving the other meaning-making rights by
renouncing one’s own inclinations to control and master … make space for the difficult, the
different, the radically strange. However, to date, there are no empirical studies about the effect
of authenticity on listening.
Yet, authenticity may be faked effectively by computers programs that paraphrase the
communicator. Such programs can lead the communicator to believe that the computer
understands them, as ELIZA showed in the 1960s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ELIZA).
Computer avatars mimicking the users’ body language, as opposed to avatars producing random
movement, increase the users’ speech fluency and engagement (Gratch et al 2006). These
LISTENING AT WORK 24
observations suggest that actual authenticity may be less predictive of listening effects than
perceived authenticity. Moreover, these results indicate how some relatively simple listening
rules, coded into computers, produce the listening people desire. Interestingly, humans appear to
struggle with applying these rules. We are not advocating to replace listeners with computers, but
instead, turn next to consider why it is so hard for people to listen.
MODERATORS AND BOUNDARY CONDITIONS FOR POSITIVE EFFECTS OF
LISTENING
The pervasive positive effects of good listening on organizational outcomes raise
questions about why and when listening may fail to produce the expected benefits. Potential
answers fall into two main groups of moderators or boundary conditions: those originating
mainly in the speaker and those originating mainly in the listener (“mainly,” in both cases,
because any conversation will involve an interplay between the two parties). We consider each in
turn.
Moderators Originating Mainly in the Speaker
Individual differences moderate the benefits of listening. Castro et al (2016) found that
listening increases speakers’ psychological safety on average, but not for speakers with an
avoidant attachment style (i.e., who do not feel comfortable with intimacy). People with an
avoidant attachment style are resistant to the intimacy created by listening. By contrast, the effect
of good listening on attitude structure was augmented for speakers high in trait social anxiety.
Participants high in dispositional social anxiety experienced more complex and less extreme
attitudes than speakers low in social anxiety following effective listening (Itzchakov et al 2017;
Study 4).
Moderators Originating Mainly in the Listener
LISTENING AT WORK 25
Several possible moderators originate mainly in the listener. The first involves social
status concerns. Listening entails a social status trade-off: good listening grants the listener
higher prestige. Yet, it reduces the perceived power disparity within the speaker-listener dyad,
and thus dilutes the listener’s status based on dominance (Hurwitz & Kluger 2017).
Consequently, individuals who base their status on dominance might not be good listeners.
Second, effective listening seems to require a delicate balance between offering the
speaker validation, supporting the self’s stable parts, and challenging the speaker to change (for
the conflictual speakers' need for stability and change, see Pasupathi 2001). In general, people
resist change and seek out supportive (i.e., non-challenging) listeners if given a choice (e.g.,
Itzchakov et al 2014). But the most effective listeners may be those who can strike the right
balance between validation and challenge. Baer et al (2018) found that employees who talked to
a colleague about perceived unfairness felt angrier, less hopeful, and engaged in less OCB than
colleagues who did not have such conversations. However, these adverse outcomes were
nullified when the colleague helped speakers reframe the unfair situation by offering suggestions
(i.e., challenged the speaker to change). Similarly, Behfar et al. (2020) found that when speakers
were angry, listeners who challenged the speakers’ thoughts and feelings were more helpful for
problem-solving than purely supportive listeners. Finally, whereas giving advice is typically
considered an indication of poor listening, it seems that managers perceived as excellent listeners
know when and how to give advice (Zenger & Folkman 2016).
Listeners, too, may resist change. Rogers (1951) proposed that the core reason people
often avoid listening is fear, sometimes out of awareness, that listening might expose areas in
which they, too, would benefit from change. Change poses a threat requiring courage to
overcome (Rogers & Roethlisberger 1991/1952). This fear may be why individuals engaged in
LISTENING AT WORK 26
an argument often fail to listen but instead spend their non-speaking time thinking of
counterarguments (Itzchakov & Kluger 2018). One more reason to resist listening altogether is
the risk of being exposed to second-hand trauma. Specifically, a meta-analysis suggests that the
more a worker (e.g., social worker) is exposed to traumatic stories (e.g., rape vs. cancer), the
higher is their self-reported stress, k = 49, N = 8,118, 𝑟̅ = .15 (Michelson & Kluger 2021).
Another potential moderator of listening is the belief that listening, in and of itself, will
help the speaker to resolve an internal conflict. Listeners who do not believe in the power of
listening may be too quick to provide unsolicited advice or feedback, and thus irritate speakers
and reduce their sense of autonomy. In contrast, those who believe in the power of listening may
lead speakers to draw their own insights with little or no advice or feedback. Such listeners
frequently witness speakers gain insight and feel invigorated merely by being listened to.
Witnessing speakers gain insight and vigor may protect such listeners from the dangers of
second-hand trauma.
EPISODIC LISTENING THEORY
Various theories in social psychology, clinical psychology, and anthropology describe the
processes induced by listening and its effects. These theories, in concert, suggest that being
listened to creates psychological safety (Rogers 1951),
4
facilitates the co-construction of
narratives (Bavelas et al 2000), improves speakers’ memory and self-knowledge (Pasupathi
2001), and raises perspectives previously outside of awareness (Gilligan 2015, Rogers 1951).
These processes, in turn, influence well-being and fuel change in speakers (Rogers 1951) and
listeners (Perrin & Blagden 2014). We integrate these theories but claim that listening might be
4
Rogers called this state an “atmosphere of safety.”
LISTENING AT WORK 27
better understood as a behavior addressing conflictual human needs and construed as a dyadic
phenomenon (Kluger et al 2021) occurring at the episodic level. Multiple dyadic listening
episodes are postulated to accumulate and lead to the outcomes reviewed above. Our theory adds
to existing theories in three ways: (a) incorporation of conflicts predicting the forces that prevent
listening; (b) a formal emphasis on the dyad as the proper level of analysis, and (c) focus on the
listening episode. The advantages of our theory include its ability to predict when listening is
likely fail, the boundaries of its effect on change, and focus on micro-processes that are more
amenable to refutation and updates. That is, we build on existing theories to propose a
mechanism that can offer parsimony and novel predictions.
Human Conflicts
Humans evolved while constantly navigating between two sets of conflicting adaptation
strategies: competition vs. cooperation and preservation vs. change. Another human can pose
both the most dangerous risks for survival (e.g., a robber with a gun) and the most helpful
resource to guarantee survival (e.g., a physician). Between these extremes, other people can
generally detract from or support one’s well-being. Therefore, humans evolved to detect and
predict the consequences of interacting with others and decide accordingly to compete or
cooperate. This conflict makes speakers very sensitive to the listeners behavior. For example, a
listener offering unsolicited advice may signal the speaker that the listener sees them as
incompetent. This “supportive” listener may be seen as asserting superiority, threatening the
speaker’s social status. In contrast, a good listener invites the speaker to collaborate in finding
ways to address the speakers needs. This invitation is not stated explicitly but underlies the
behavior of a good listener. If the speaker feels safe enough to accept this invitation, the two can
go on to deal with the second set of conflicting adaptation strategies: preservation versus change.
LISTENING AT WORK 28
In contrast, if the speaker does not feel safe enough to accept the listener’s invitation, none of the
benefits of listening enumerated above are likely to happen. Thus, any construct that reduces the
speaker’s psychological safety will nullify the potential benefits of listening. Such constructs
may include the speaker’s avoidance-attachment style, power differences between listener and
speaker, and listeners’ low dispositional intellectual humility.
Preservation of cognitions and routines conserves energy. As such, it makes sense for
people to use habitual patterns of thought and action that have already proved themselves in
keeping them alive. However, if they never change these patterns, people risk failing to adapt to
a changing environment, reducing their survival fitness. Again, between these two extremes,
people calibrate instantly when it is advantageous to change and when it might be dangerous. At
times of threat, the safest strategy is to use habitual routines, as Rogers and others have observed.
In contrast, when safety is guaranteed, people are more disposed to test their perspectives non-
defensively. A good listener creates the safe condition required for change and growth. This
condition is a property of episodic and dyadic interaction. Yet, because change conflicts with
stability and both are important for survival, our theory predicts that the opposing force of
stability will limit listening-induced change.
Dyadic Phenomenon (Levels of Analysis)
Listening is dyadic in that it involves one or more pairs.
5
Dyads can be viewd from two
perspectives: (a) how each partner relates to or interacts with the othere.g., how Alan behaves
in Beth’s presence, and how this behavior is reciprocated by Beth (Kenny et al 2006); and (b)
5
Listening can also occur in a group where one speaker draws the attention of many listeners, as in
Listening Circles (Itzchakov & Kluger 2017a).
LISTENING AT WORK 29
constructs that influence or are generated by the two partnerse.g., the environment that Alan
and Beth share, or the harmony of their relationship (Ledermann & Kenny 2012). The first
perspective is captured by the social relations model (Kenny et al 2006). Listening is dyadic,
according to the social relations model because each instance of listening between dyad members
is unique (Kluger et al 2021). The second perspective is captured by the common-fate model
(Ledermann & Kenny 2012). Building on the common-fate model, we propose that perceived
listening engenders common relationships and cognitive states which come to characterize the
dyad’s behavior (Figure 1). Both perspectives (social relations model and common-fate model)
differ from individual-level concepts, whereby one person’s traits and behaviors predict either
the self’s or other’s outcomes. For example, a listener’s chronic agreeableness may affect how
any speaker perceives that person’s listening behavior.
We propose that perceptions of high-quality listening can fuel a cascade of events leading
to organizational benefits. The perception of listening is formed through a unique match between
speaker and listener. Consider this example: Alan perceives that Beth listens exceptionally well
to him. This perception may reflect any of four causes: the listening climate in their work team;
Alan’s general perception of how people listen to him; Beth’s tendency to elicit a perception of
listening (i.e., her listening trait as perceived by others); and Alan’s unique perception of Beth’s
listening that cannot be attributed to any of the preceding three sources. More formally,
differences in listening can be derived from differences between teams in average perceptions of
listening; differences between raters (e.g., the difference between Alan, Beth, Chuck, and Debra
in how they perceive listening on average in their team); differences between ratees; and
differences between unique dyads (Alan may perceive Beth as an exceptional listener, but neither
Chuck nor Debra concurs). Our research involving 910 dyadic ratings of listening in Israeli work
LISTENING AT WORK 30
teams found that when we decompose the variance in listening ratings, differences between
teams, raters, ratees, and unique dyads explained 8%, 24%, 12%, and 42% of this variance
respectively (the remainder, approximately 15%, is error variance). These data imply that about
half of the explained variance can be attributed to unique dyads (Kluger et al 2021).
Moreover, listening perceptions are not reciprocated at the individual level, r = -.01, but
are reciprocated within dyads, r = .46. For example, Alan may perceive everyone in his team as
good listeners regardless of how everyone perceives him (no generalized reciprocity). In
contrast, if Alan perceives that Beth listens exceptionally well to him, she is very likely to
perceive that Alan listens exceptionally well to her (dyadic reciprocity).
Perceptions of listening, whether to self-disclosures, work-related ideas, or both
6
, can be
chronic (“My boss generally listens well to me”) or episodic (“Wow, she is really paying
attention now”). We focus on the episodic perception of listening because it is at that level where
work outcomes are produced, although these can be cumulative. Specifically, we propose that
perception of listening creates psychological safety (Castro et al 2018, Castro et al 2016,
Itzchakov et al 2016) because it engenders a perception that the listener is non-judgmental and
has benevolent intentions.
Once a speaker experiences psychological safety, they are more likely to self-disclose
(Weinstein et al 2021) and speak authentically (Ryan & Ryan 2019). The authenticity of the
6
Several listening and communication theories differentiated between types of communication contents,
and listener’s preferences to listen to one or another, see Bodie GD, Winter J, Dupuis D, Tompkins T. 2020. The
ECHO listening profile: initial validity evidence for a measure of four listening habits. International Journal of
Listening 34: 131-55, and summary of the four sides (ears) of Schultz von Thun (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four-
sides_model). We recognize that this may be another moderator of listening effects, but given space limitation and
the little empirical evidence for the predictive validity of this construct, we do not discuss it further.
LISTENING AT WORK 31
speaker may then start a positive spiral. As the speaker shares more authentic content, the
listener’s interest may increase. This increase in listener engagement is then likely to further
build the speaker’s sense of psychological safety, encouraging more interesting discourse (e.g.,
stories versus descriptions; Itzchakov et al 2016) and better speaking quality (Kluger et al 2021),
which will trigger even better listening quality. As the process of listening, perceiving listening,
and authenticity spirals up, a state we label togetherness may be created. The state of
togetherness is a common-fate dyadic phenomenon, as it is a property of the dyad that cannot
exist within one person. Empirically, though, it could be assessed as a latent variable of
togetherness indexed by the reports of the dyad members.
The State of Togetherness
We define the state of togetherness as an episodic experience of “chemistry” (Reis et al in
press) and high-quality connection (Dutton & Heaphy 2003), in which partners co-experience a
meeting of minds, where the feeling of time is suspended, and both parties are immersed in each
others world or a newly co-created mutual space. This mental state was recognized by the
philosopher Martin Buber as the state of IThou, as opposed to IIt, and by Emmanuel Levians
as the encounter with the Other (Lipari 2004). Listening scholars have characterized this state as
transcendence—“absorption in the unfolding conversation where participants experience a sense
of insight, creation, and a feeling of connection, or ‘sharedness,’ that could only be achieved via
interaction with another” (Greene & Herbers 2011).
Togetherness can be characterized by three main features. The first is shared attention
“a unique psychological state in which the self perceives the world from a collective standpoint,
and hence constitutes a cognitive state that is inherently social” (Shteynberg 2018). The second
is a shared reality—“the experience of sharing a set of inner states (e.g., thoughts, feelings, or
LISTENING AT WORK 32
beliefs) in common with a particular interaction partner about the world in general” (Rossignac-
Milon et al 2020). The third is positivity resonance, which incorporates shared positive affect,
mutual care and concern, and behavioral and biological synchrony (Major et al 2018). Note that,
within the state of togetherness, attention may be focused either on a common goal (e.g., an
organizational aim, such as improving the branch earnings rate) or on the speakers concerns
(e.g., dissatisfaction with one’s current assignment). The experience of togetherness can be
expected to generate positive emotions, even if the content of the conversation involves negative
emotions, because it addresses cooperation and change needs of the dyad members.
The Effect of Togetherness on Cognitions
When a pair of people are in a state of togetherness, their minds are free to engage in
divergent thinking to a degree rarely experienced outside this state. This thinking occurs through
two complementary processes. First, foreign cognitions of the other penetrate and influence the
self’s cognition (Rouse 2020). The unique social form of the dyad provides an opportunity for
heightened psychological safety and intimacy, such that “dyads might provide a context that
benefits creativity in ways that working alone or in a group cannot. This intimacy changes the
interpretation of divergent ideas from a threat into an opportunity. Moreover, in this intimate
space, the partners elaborate on each other’s suggestions and criticize them in a manner
perceived to advance the ideation and not attack the other (Rouse 2020).
Second, the state of togetherness expands the accessibility of conflicting cognitions
(Itzchakov & Kluger 2017, Itzchakov et al 2017, Rogers 1951). In the words of Rogers (1951),
… in this atmosphere of safety, protection, and acceptance, the firm boundaries of self-
organization relax. There is no longer the firm, tight gestalt which is characteristic of
every organization under threat, but a looser, more uncertain configuration. He [the
LISTENING AT WORK 33
speaker] begins to explore his perceptual field more and more fully. He discovers faulty
generalizations, but his self structure is now sufficiently relaxed so that he can consider
the complex and contradictory experiences upon which they are based. He discovers
experiences of which he has never been aware, which are deeply contradictory to the
perception he has had of himself, and this is threatening indeed.
Translating Rogerss account to present-day terminology suggests that listening-induced
togetherness increases the speakers objective attitude ambivalencethe co-presence of
opposing emotions and cognitions concerning a given topic (Itzchakov et al 2017). Thus, the
listening-induced reduction in threat to the self causes the speaker to become aware ofand
tolerateconflicting aspects of their thoughts
7
(Itzchakov et al 2018, Itzchakov & Kluger 2017,
Itzchakov et al 2017).
In sum, togetherness facilitates divergent thinking, novel perspectives, and cognitive
change. Yet, togetherness is short-lived because the change which it induces threatens
satisfaction of an opposing need, namely for stability (Pasupathi 2001). We predict that the
conversation partner that reaches their threshold for change will terminate the state of
togetherness by excusing themselves, changing the topic, or cracking a joke. Thus, any construct
increasing resistance to change would decrease both the likelihood of the occurrence of
togetherness and its longevity. For example, if one dyad member is high in resistance to change,
they are less likely to engage in togetherness, and if they do, they are most likely to be the one
who terminates this state. Nevertheless, in the wake of a togetherness episode, both conversation
7
A corollary of our argument is that listening would reduce or even annul the cognitive dissonance
phenomenon.
LISTENING AT WORK 34
partners emerge changed and are more likely to repeat a togetherness experience once their
processing of the change is complete.
The Outcomes of Togetherness
Participation in the togetherness experience leaves both conversation partners with
clarity, novel plans, new knowledge, heightened well-being, and strengthened attachment to each
other. Clarity is produced by togetherness because it facilitates reflective self-awareness (non-
defensive introspection). Supporting this notion, Itzchakov et al (2018) found that feeling
listened to increased speakers attitude clarity—the subjective sense of truly knowing one’s
attitude on a topic. Listening-induced clarity increased speakers’ willingness to self-disclose their
attitudes to others without increasing their drive to impose their views on others. This state of
inner clarity also helps to generate novel and more adaptive plans (Cohen 2013).
Togetherness contributes to the well-being of the parties via multiple routes. First, the
complex cognitions that arise during the encounter are adaptive. According to Rogers, listening
allows individuals to “establish realistic and harmonious relationship with people [beyond the
specific partner involved in the encounter] and situations” (Rogers & Roethlisberger 1991/1952).
Second, the encounter satisfies both epistemic needs (Rossignac-Milon et al 2020) and
belongingness, or relatedness, needs. Satisfaction of these needs is likely to foster the well-being
of the dyad members.
Finally, listening-induced togetherness reinforces the connection between the speaker and
the listener. Therefore, in some organizational contexts, future listening episodes could further
build relationships between the dyad members (e.g., supervisor-employee, teammates, and
salesperson-customer). This improved relationship can translate into chronic benefits for the
dyad and the organization.
LISTENING AT WORK 35
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE AND THEORY
Cultivating listening in organizations may be a cost-effective way to improve numerous
organizational outcomes. Consider the outcome of job satisfaction to reduce turnover and attract
prospective employees. One means of increasing job satisfaction is raising employees’ pay. Yet.
the meta-analytically derived correlation between pay and job satisfaction is only .15 (Judge et al
2010). In contrast, consider the high correlations found between perceived listening by
supervisors and employees’ job satisfaction (e.g., .43 in Tangirala & Ramanujam 2012). The
return on investment from raising pay could, in theory, be negligible relative to that of training
supervisors in listening. Listening to employees may also mitigate the potential damage of
employees’ tendency to react defensively to feedback and performance appraisals (see Kluger &
Lehmann 2018). Through listening, with its concomitant improvements in outcomes such as job
satisfaction, organizations can also increase diversity and tolerance and encourage voice
behavior. Finally, listening is a critical skill in negotiations. Thus, developing organization
members’ listening skills can also improve their negotiating proficiency (Curhan et al 2021,
Itzchakov & Kluger 2019).
From a theoretical perspective, we argue that listening is a hitherto unexplored antecedent
of relational coordination at work. According to relational coordination theory (Gittell 2016),
group members who feel genuinely listened to will feel respected, and will be more likely to
coordinate with the group to develop shared knowledge and shared goals. Promoting listening
within teams will enable group members to understand each others perspectives and resolve
disagreements in a way that is timely, accurate, and focused on problem-solving.
Listening Training
LISTENING AT WORK 36
A key question is how organizations can train their employees in listening. We find in our
classes that many students resist the mechanical nature of paraphrasing used in active listening.
Therefore, we use many tools in our instruction. For a selection of tools, their underlying
assumptions, and research, if available, see Table S3 in the Supplementary Material. As an
example, we begin our listening instruction by instructing the listeners to invite stories from the
speakers (e.g., “Could you please tell me an interesting story about your name?”). Students first
share stories, in rotating pairs, with 7-10 students. As homework, they ask three people out of
class to tell them three stories each and then write a reflection. We assume that inviting stories
improves listening and experimental data support this claim (Itzchakov et al 2016). However,
none of the methods we use were tested with more than a handful of studies each.
Due to the lack of research programs to test the effectiveness of listening training, insight
might be gained from psychotherapy, where listening methods are standard and sometimes
accompanied by a rigorous research program (see the footnote of Table S3 in the Supplementary
Material). One such method is motivational interviewing (Rollnick & Miller 1995). Consistent
with our proposed episodic listening theory, motivational interviewing’s central assumption is
that change should be freely elicited from within speakers rather than imposed on them.
Specifically, the listener tries to understand the speaker’s perspective and paraphrases content
that conveys ambivalence. This process allows speakers to explore internal conflicts and
contradictions and increase their motivation to change (Rollnick & Miller 1995). Organizations
can use motivational interviewing to help employees cope with work-related ambivalence, such
as work-family conflict or managing conflictual work relationships.
Importantly, our observation of our university-level classes on listening suggests that
experiential activities in which trainees learn what it feels like to be listened to, and reflect on
LISTENING AT WORK 37
their experience, may be more effective than instruction-based training (see Hinz et al 2020).
Making trainees knowledgeable about the benefits of listening is unlikely to change behavior by
itself. Instead, experiencing firsthand the benefits of being listened to by others may motivate
participants to put their learning into practice, first by reciprocating during the training and then
transferring their new skills to other contexts.
We also concur with observations that listening should be taught before individuals even
set foot within the organization. Professional education (e.g., medical and MBA programs)
typically does not include listening skills. Brink and Costigan (2014) also point to a
misalignment between the perspectives of employers and recruiters and the skills taught in most
business programs, with listening being the most important aspect of communication in the
workplace, but the aspect given least prominence in business classes.
LIMITATIONS AND OPEN QUESTIONS
One significant and unresolved issue in understanding the construct of listening at work
is its discriminant validity. Listening behaviors (see Figure S1) may be subsets of listening and,
as such, may be easier to define and manipulate than broader constructs, such as perceived
listening. These behaviors may include asking questions (Hart et al 2021, Van Quaquebeke &
Felps 2018), paraphrasing, and following a receptiveness recipe (Yeomans et al 2020). The
drawback of defining and studying specific listening behaviors is that they do not capture the
entire phenomenon. Defining listening as a holistic perception may provide the proper
conceptual breadth but may be indistinguishable from constructs such as feeling understood
(Reis et al 2017) and perceived responsiveness (Reis & Clark 2013). Also, it may be empirically
hard to disentangle the perception of listening from listening outcomes such as empathy and
LISTENING AT WORK 38
trust. Therefore, more theoretical and empirical research is needed to refine the construct of
listening and demonstrate its discriminant validity.
Second, research is needed to establish whether perceived listening is a unipolar or a
bipolar construct, which will shed light on the meaning of experimental manipulations of
listening. Presently, if one manipulates poor, moderate, and good listening, it is unclear whether
this is a manipulation of one latent construct or two (destructive and constructive listening). A
third challenge is to understand the antecedents of listening perceptions. For example, some
employees equated good listening with their supervisor accepting their requests for resources,
even long after the conversation (Kriz et al in press). This lay perception of listening diverges
from our definition. A fourth challenge is developing effective methods for training employees to
listen, such that speakers notice the change. The assessment of listening training may benefit
both from theorizing and measuring how trained listeners influence their social environment.
Fifth, the field of listening reports only two meta-analyses (Itani et al 2019, Michelson & Kluger
2021), which were not based on systematic reviews. Systematic reviews coupled with meta-
analyses will create the databases constraining future theories. Sixth, most existing research on
listening seeks only to demonstrate its benefits. Yet, only by probing the boundaries
(moderators) and the forces preventing people from listening may advance the field beyond the
clichés of active listening.
Finally, the Episodic Listening Theory we proposed needs further clarification and details
to become more refutable. For example, it is unclear from our model (Figure 1) how many
iterations between the listener’s listening and the speaker’s authenticity are required to produce
togetherness. Furthermore, the theory is mute about a host of individual differences that may
LISTENING AT WORK 39
operate at the dyad level and impact the speed at which psychological safety will be produced or
destroyed.
CONCLUSION
We have summarized evidence that listening generates high-quality connections that
improve a wide range of organizational outcomes. Therefore, managers and employees who
cultivate listening will reap first the benefits of high-quality connections and togetherness. These
then cascade into greater creativity, productivity, clarity, and well-being for the listener, the
speaker, and the organization. To cultivate listening skills, we suggest that focusing on one
episode at a time may be more productive than attempting to become a better listener in general.
In practicing listening, the focus should be on cultivating the Rogerian belief that mere listening
sparks the cascade of desirable events. Finally, we delineated the research approach that may
advance the field of listening. It includes caution in separating listener and speaker effects,
studying them from a dyadic perspective, and applying appropriate statistical methods. We
pointed out the challenges facing listening research at work. Overcoming these challenges will
help understanding ways for creating more humane and productive organizations.
LISTENING AT WORK 40
FUTURE ISSUES LIST
1. Establish discriminant validity for the construct of perceived listening, including
determination of whether the construct is unipolar or bipolar.
2. Establish discriminant validity for listening manipulations.
3. Creating robust manipulations of better-than-average listening.
4. Develop a theory of listening training and test the effects of training on people interacting
with trainees.
5. Perform systematic reviews and meta-analyses of the various effects of listening.
6. Advance understanding of the forces that prevent people from listening, and demonstrate
more boundaries (moderators) of listening effects.
7. Refine the Episodic Listening Theory as to present more specific, and refutable, predictions.
LISTENING AT WORK 41
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Figure 1
Episodic Listening Theory
... Social support also fosters relational energy (Owens & Hekman, 2016). Like social support, listening entails constructive behaviors as perceived by speakers (Kluger & Itzchakov, 2022). However, these two constructs are not isomorphic 4 | ITZCHAKOV ET AL. since listening includes "in the moment" behaviors that convey attention, comprehension, and positive intention of speakers, whereas social support is a more general, abstract concept and does not require a conversation (For more on the differences between listening and types of social support see; Weinstein et al., 2022). ...
... Listening may thus be an unexplored antecedent of relational energy. Episodic Listening Theory (Kluger & Itzchakov, 2022) suggests that good listeners create a mutual feeling of togetherness. To illustrate, when Tammy perceives that Amanda is listening to her well, Tammy feels more connected to Amanda and is energized by her interactions with Amanda. ...
... The teachers also studied and practiced the primary overt and covert elements of listening: repeating the speaker's message in their own words (paraphrasing), providing reflections, avoiding giving advice or feedback, asking promoting questions, maintaining eye contact, and using body posture that conveys openness and curiosity, developing a nonjudgmental approach, and the intention to benefit the speaker (Kluger & Itzchakov, 2022). The teachers practiced each component in dyads and groups. ...
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... When people listen well, they confer many benefits to the speakers. Good listening is therapeutic (Rogers, 1951), reduces the speaker's attitude extremity (Itzchakov et al., 2017), increases the speaker's psychological safety , and is related to a multitude of desirable work outcomes (Kluger & Itzchakov, 2022;Yip & Fisher, 2022), including sales (Itani et al., 2019), creativity (Castro et al., 2018), and leadership (Kluger & Zaidel, 2013). Given these benefits, practitioners and researchers sought techniques to improve listening quality. ...
... As per theoretical specification, we propose that learning how to produce good listening would require defining (a) what good listening is, (b) how each technique (e.g., time-sharing) manipulates each element of this definition, and (c) the boundary conditions for the effectiveness of each technique. Listening is hard to define (Kluger & Itzchakov, 2022). Yet, a layperson's understanding of listening seems to converge with theoretical views that listening includes signals of (a) paying attention to the speaker, (b) signaling understanding (comprehension), and (c) conveying a nonjudgmental attitude (intention) toward the speaker Itzchakov et al., 2017;Lipetz et al., 2020). ...
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Listeners who interrupt speakers upset the speakers and prevent the benefits of good listening. Interruptions can be avoided with “time-sharing,” where each partner listens (silently) for an equal amount of time. Yet, is time-sharing good for all? In an experiment with 50 pairs (95 participants with useable data), participants conversed freely for one minute and were then assigned either to a time-sharing (of three minutes each) or a free conversation condition. Consistent with our hypotheses, speakers in the time-sharing condition showed reduced social anxiety if they were high on narcissism but elevated social anxiety if high on depression, explaining past inconsistent effects of time-sharing.
... For example, good listeners reduce the speaker's depression [1], the extremism of their attitudes [2], and facilitate attitudinal clarity [3]. In addition, good listeners benefit themselves by gaining new knowledge, performing better on the job [4,5], being liked by their conversation partners [6], and becoming more humble [7]. ...
... The opportunity for self-exploration is likely to be a reward for the partner. Experiencing this reward would contribute to the attachment to the listening partner, reducing conflicts and increasing the sustainability of the relationships [5]. Yet, this causal chain would benefit from experimental work testing each component. ...
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... Therefore, managers should encourage their employees to behave humbly toward each other and endorse programs developing humble behaviors among employees. For example, because listening was found to increase humility , and listening is considered a cue of humble behavior (Owens et al., 2013), organizations could consider incorporating listening training programs (Hinz et al., 2022;Kluger & Itzchakov, 2022). ...
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