Listening is one of the most valuable skills anyone can possess. If you want to excel as a leader, the ability to listen well is essential. Unfortunately, listening is also an easy (and common) skill to take for granted.
Listening is easy to mistake as an innate ability. Most of us begin to listen in our infancy. We learn as we grow. Some skills we develop with intention, through mindful study and careful practice; others, we learn without really thinking much about it. We observe and experience our way through life and pick up all kinds of habits, both good and bad, along the way.
Most bad habits are formed unintentionally, over time, usually without our noticing. When it comes to our listening skills, many of us don’t realize that we’re falling short because we’ve failed to notice the bad listening habits we’ve developed. The good news – with a little bit of conscious effort, these bad habits can be fixed. Anyone can become a great listener. Anyone can, and everyone should (especially if you’re in a leadership position).
Listening is critical to understanding. When we don’t listen well, mistakes are made and relationships suffer. On the flip side, those who have mastered the art of listening well know the benefits are many. When we start focusing less on what we think should be said, and paying more attention to what others have to share, we gain all kinds of valuable insights and information. Plus, when people feel heard, they feel valued. Whether employee and boss or husband and wife, this alone improves the dynamic of relationships.
Below are a few actionable ways you can start improving your listening skills today.
Note: These are great communication exercises that anyone can put into practice, but as with just about any area of personal development, if you really want to see lasting change, self-awareness is key. It is important to start at the beginning.
Before you go further, if you haven’t yet read the first two blogs in this series, Part I: The Real Reason Leaders Don’t Listen, and Part II: C-Level Listening: The Beliefs and Behaviors That Make Executives Bad Listeners, I recommend you pause here and give those a read first.
Getting to the source of the problem takes more work, but if you want your efforts to pay off, it’s work worth doing. It’s quick and easy cut down unwanted weeds at the stem, but if you don’t dig them out at the root, eventually, they’re going to grow back.
Talk Less, Listen More
You can’t listen if you don’t allow others an opportunity to be heard. You may pride yourself on being articulate and have a masterful vocabulary, but if you don’t know when to close your mouth and open your ears, information is getting lost. If you tend to be particularly long-winded or are known for dominating conversations, the greater the likelihood that the people with whom (or AT whom) you are speaking are not listening to you as well as you might like either. This is not effective communication.
Practice speaking less and offering others the chance to speak more. A great way to do this is to apply the 30-second rule: don’t speak for longer than 30 seconds at a time.
Stick to this rule whether you’re in a one-on-one conversation or meeting with a group. Work on keeping your talking points as succinct as possible. Even if there’s more to be said, make a point to pause every 30 seconds to allow others to interject. Encourage participation, dialog, and feedback. For longer, more in-depth messages or presentations, try pausing to ask, “Is this making sense?” or “Do you understand?”
Also note - limiting your speaking to shorter intervals doesn’t mean cramming more thoughts into less time. In addition to speaking less, make an effort to speak more slowly. If you want your message to be received, make it easier for your listeners to digest what you have to say.
Ask Quality Questions
Listening is about focusing less on what you think people need to know and more on what you can learn from people. Want to create more listening opportunities? Ask for them.
Asking questions is a great way to show people you’re interested in them – in who they are, in their feelings, needs, input, and ideas. When leading employees, listening and asking questions allows them to come up with their own ideas. This is empowering. When people are able to able to contribute their own ideas, they’re more likely to be excited and passionate about their work, which tends to inspire more dedication and better productivity than when people are simply told what to do. But not all questions are created equal. You need to ask the right questions – the kinds of questions that inspire authentic and thoughtful responses, not lead someone to the responses you want them to give.
Questions should inspire thinking and foster understanding. Ask ‘open questions’ that require more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Also, be mindful of phrasing, word choice, and tone when crafting your questions. Questions like, “Why did you do that?” can come across as accusatory and put people on the defensive. Try to keep things positive and encouraging. Instead of using “Why” questions, try using more “How” or “What” questions, like: “How would you approach this?” or “What are your ideas?”
Here are a few more great questions leaders can ask their teams:
What are your challenges?
What can we do / how can we solve…?
What do you think about…? or How do you feel about…?
What do you need from me in order to accomplish… ?
How can I make your job / this project easier?
Questions are also a great way to get your customers talking, too. Next time you meet with a client or prospect, focus less on telling them what you think they should hear; instead try asking strategic questions to learn how to better meet their needs or discover exactly what you need to do or say to close the deal.
The ability to get others to open up and share is an invaluable skill, but if you don’t know how to listen once they do, you’re wasting everybody’s time (and probably reducing your chances of that person opening up again in the future).
Active listening, or conscious listening, is about listening to understand, not listening to respond. To listen actively you need to give the speaker your full attention. Stop what you’re doing and fully engage. Put down the phone, close the laptop, and stop glancing at this month’s sales report. (I promise, the world won’t end if you look away for a few minutes.) When you focus in this way, you gain more from the interaction yourself, and at the same time, you communicate to the speaker that he or she and what they have to say matters.
Some Dos and Don’ts of Active Listening:
DO focus on the speaker. Give your full attention.
DO use body language to let the speaker know that you’re interested in what they have to say. Straighten up, face the speaker, and maintain eye contact.
DO show that you’re listening with feedback like head nodding, facial expressions, and brief verbal responses like, “Right,” or “I see.”
DON’T jump to conclusions. Don’t mentally skip ahead to what you think is coming next.
DON’T interrupt or attempt to cut off or the speaker.
DO offer appropriate responses to let the speaker know that you empathize - “That must have been a challenge.”
DO make an effort to verify that you are correctly interpreting what the speaker is trying to say. When it’s your turn to speak, repeat the speaker’s message in your own words – “What I hear you saying is…”
DO ask questions if you’re not clear on the intended message or if you’d like to speaker to elaborate further.
DO offer related thoughts or opinions but DON’T hijack the conversation.
Practice applying these new listening behaviors in all of your interactions, whether communicating with a colleague, a spouse, your children, or meeting someone new. It may take some getting used to (for the people around you, too.) Give it time, but keep practicing. As with any exercise routine, if you keep at it, you will get stronger. New habits will begin to form and you will start to see the benefits.