Listening skills do not come naturally to most people.
Yet listening is a skill that you must master to become a truly strategic and engaging leader. Strategic leaders listen for both the content of the message and the feelings being expressed by others. Paying attention to both factors will help the leader understand how to interpret the meaning, inferences, and implications that the message has for the future.
There are many barriers to effective listening. Most leaders are promoted because they are effective performers and problem-solvers. However, being too impatient to really listen and moving into a “fix-it” mentality before you fully understand the situation is a common mistake.
Listening requires concentration and skill. Some of us have never actually practiced listening or learned how to suspend our thinking while others speak. This can be especially difficult when dealing with a challenging employee or customer, or when emotions are running high. As a leader, you must also be willing to suspend the belief that you must be:
- In control of the situation at all times.
- Ready with a solution because you are the expert.
Many traditional, authoritarian leaders struggle to allow time and space for others to express their ideas. The best leaders listen objectively to all points of view and influence others to make the best choice, regardless of whether the idea was theirs to begin with.
Learning how to truly listen to others requires willingness, practice, and patience. Rather than preparing your response, multitasking, or evaluating what has been shared while others are talking, you must concentrate on the speaker and fully absorb the message. To become a better listener, there are several skills you can practice:
1) Give the other person an opportunity to express his or her point of view. You may need to ask for input during the conversation. To invite them to participate, say, “I’d like to hear from you on this topic. What ideas do you have?”
2) Listen carefully and focus on absorbing the content of the message. Let the other party tell his or her story first, before you share your perspective. Fight off distractions by scheduling the discussion at an appropriate time and place. If it’s a complex issue, schedule a conference room away from your phone and computer so you won’t be interrupted.
3) Use positive body language and show interest in what is being said. Simply allowing the other person to speak isn’t a good measure of the quality of your listening. Maintain eye contact and lean towards the other party when key ideas are presented. Take a few notes if needed, but keep them brief.
4) Stay aware of the nonverbal signals you may be sending and the feelings you and the other person are having during the discussion. Acknowledge any underlying emotions without judgment or criticism. A statement like, “It sounds like you are frustrated with others on the team” can help move the dialogue past the issue and towards finding a solution.
5) Don’t interrupt or talk over the other person. After he or she has finished conveying the message, verbally paraphrase key points to make sure that you have understood what was said. Then, ask follow-up questions to probe for more details.
While it does require a great deal of practice, listening is a skill that can be learned. CMOE has helped many leaders improve the quality of their communication by mastering the art of listening. Contact CMOE to learn more about how we can help you.