Good leaders take time to listen

We all know communication is key to building relationships, solving problems, reducing conflict and, basically, interacting well with others. But many people are so eager to talk about themselves, they fail to develop good listening skills.

When employees say they want their voices to be heard, they are really saying: ”Don’t just hear me, but listen to me!”

Email has become the easy and quick way to communicate, share info, make requests and answer questions. Yet, there is a dark side to the endless flow of emails coming at us. First, depending on how disciplined we are at managing emails, each of us may have 100 to 300 emails to read, delete, respond to, or act on each day. More disturbing is the fact that, to a great extent, emails have replaced conversations.

Let’s face it: strong leaders tend to be characterized by their strong opinions and decisive action. These are important traits, but it’s equally important for managers to stand down and listen up.

Too often, leaders seek to take command, direct conversations, talk too much, or worry about what they will say next in defense or rebuttal. Additionally, leaders can react quickly, get distracted during a conversation, or fail to make the time to listen to others. But leaders can also be ineffective at listening if they are competitive, if they multitask such as reading emails or text messages, or if they let their egos get in the way of listening to what others have to say.

Research also shows that active listening, combined with empathy or trying to understand others’ perspectives and points of view is the most effective form of listening. Henry Ford once said:

If there is any great secret of success in life, it lies in the ability to put oneself in another person’s place and to see things from his or her point of view -as well as from one’s own.

Employees want to be led by those who genuinely care about who they are and what they represent to the team and organization. Don’t view your employees as tools and resources for your own success.

So you need the will. You have to put it at the top of your list and acknowledge it’s a skill that’s important in your role as a leader. It has to be an active decision. To get over a need to talk or interject, adapt a mindset that will allow you to hear what’s being shared. If you believe you have all the answers, you simply have no reason to listen to others.

It’s important to understand what’s holding you back. If you’re extroverted and conversational, you’re usually the one doing most of the talking. Some of us may have had early experiences in life where we were taught to be listeners instead of speakers. Some of us were taught that it was weak to listen, that we need to speak up. Without first recognizing the influence of your early years, it’s difficult to change.

Be mindful

When your attention is elsewhere during a conversation, you risk sending a message that the speaker and their message are unimportant. Demonstrate that you are listening by silencing your phone, darkening your desktop monitor, and putting away anything that has the potential to distract you from the conversation at hand.

Recognize verbal and non-verbal cues

Communication is much more than the words spoken. It’s not just content, it’s context too. In a conversation, people might say one thing but their face and body are saying the opposite. Don’t let these cues pass by unaddressed. Acknowledge the information you’re receiving with questions.

Ask for explanations or examples

Leaders who are effective listeners ask clarifying questions. They don’t make assumptions. They drill down into the content of the conversation and verify what they’ve heard.

Don’t interrupt

Compassionate leaders listen and don’t interrupt the flow of the dialogue. They embrace two-way communication and are aware that with every interruption comes disengagement. They earn respect from their peers by being a patient listener.

Respond well

Don’t just focus on the body language of the speaker. Control yours too. There are times this is challenging, either because you disagree strongly or because the news is upsetting.

Empathy is a powerful display of listening. I realize that many leaders avoid emotional interactions, but the best leaders know how to empathize and make themselves approachable to those who need attention. Great leaders know how to balance the head and the heart.

As Ram Charan suggests in “The Discipline of Listening,

I try to gain as much insight as possible from the people I speak with by engaging in every angle of the conversation. I purposely meet in a face-to-face setting with as many team members as possible in order to be able to fully understand every angle.

Peter Hill, CEO of Billy Casper Golf, the leading company in golf management, says,

When I am speaking, I’m not learning.

Jeff Immelt CEO of GE gave a lecture at Stanford Graduates School of Business on leadership. He shared his view of competencies required for the 21st century. The first one is Analytical Listening Skills. He said,

I never met any great leader who wasn’t a good listener.

Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer at IDEO, has said

During my twenties I assumed that the world was more interested in me than I was in it, so I spent most of my time talking, usually in a quite uninformed way, about whatever I thought, rushing to be clever, thinking about what I was going to say rather than listening to what they were saying to me.

Don’t let this be you. Slow down, engage and learn from others. Listen to your customers, your team, and your employees. They often have information that you don’t. Deep engagement does not begin with getting people to listen to you; it begins when you really listen to them.

Do you want to learn more about listening, please become a member of the International Listening Association.

Sources: Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, ILA, Huffington Post, Graham Bodie, Rick Bommelje, Simon Sinek, Julian Treasure, Sheila Bently, Tom Peters and John Keyser.

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