3 steps I’ve learned to assess and improve listening proficiency
Internal Auditors are charged with evaluating control environments and providing solid conclusions on the effectiveness and efficiency of processes. This requires a substantial amount of observation and inquiry. This means we must ask great questions and be effective listeners. Listening, however, is one of the most difficult things for humans to do. We are inherently wired to talk, discuss, and provide information. No matter what your level of proficiency as an auditor, listening skills should be developed daily. After years in the audit profession, I still find that I must make a conscience effort to ensure I am listening effectively. What follows are three ways I’ve learned to assess and improve listening proficiency:
- Recognize Confirmation Bias
- Recognize the Power of the Pause
- Avoid putting the Answer in the Question
It is a tendency of people to prefer information that confirms preconceptions, hypotheses whether or not they are true. For auditors, sometimes we allow our bias to cloud our objectivity. For example, “good” audit clients may not receive the same level of scrutiny as “bad” clients due to prior history. Or “bad” audit clients may receive unusually heavy scrutiny based on past experiences. Have you ever hear or said, “This should be an easy audit, these guys always have a well-controlled environment”. If so, you may have confirmation bias. In his article, How to Minimize Your Biases When Making Decisions, Robert F. Wolf suggests overcoming confirmation bias involves:
- Searching “relentlessly for potentially relevant or new disconfirming evidence”
- Seeking “diverse outside opinion to counter overconfidence”
- Reframing or flipping “the problem on its head to see if we are vewing the situation in either a positive or negative framework”
The Power of the Pause
People inherently fear “awkward silences”. We tend to fill those silent moments by talking, however, it is in those moments when the greatest conversations occur. Now, when I ask questions, I allow some silent time. This provides clients with the opportunity truly think about the question and provide quality answers.
The Answer in the Question
Placing the answer in the question is an extremely detrimental practice and yet we all do it. Not quite sure what that is? Imagine inquiring about a client’s bank reconciliation process and you say, “Do you reconcile bank activity monthly?” By providing the answer to/in the question, you have closed off opportunities to listen for alternative (or the real) answer. A better question would be, “How often do you reconcile bank activity?” Placing the answer in the question is almost instinctual for most of us. To avoid this, I attempt to carefully plan my questions and carefully think before speaking.
These are three items that I struggle with, however, awareness of them allows me to think before I speak. This has led to asking better questions, getting better answers and performing better audits. I have developed a training course designed to improve the quality of asking questions and listening skills.
What are some barriers you face when asking and listening?
How have you overcome these barriers?
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