On Leadership: 10 ways to be a more effective listener
This is part of a series on effective communication for leaders and organizations.
Early in my career, I got some great advice from a colleague who was very successful. He told me when I was meeting with clients to basically stop talking. “Listen twice as much as you talk,” he said. “And when you do speak, make an effort to play back what the client said.” He said that would tell the client I was listening and would help me verify if I truly understood what they were saying. It took effort and practice for me to learn to talk less and listen more – and I still have a long way to go – but listening has proved to be as critical in leadership today as it was in client relationships early on.
Listening plays an important role in the success of any business, especially as it relates to employee engagement and productivity. Unfortunately, not all employees feel heard. According to a recent Forbes article, research from the Workforce Institute revealed 86% of employees “feel they are not heard ‘fairly or equally,’ and 63% believe their voice has been ignored by their employer or manager.” That article also cites a Salesforce Research study that showed when an employee feels heard, “that person is 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform to the best of their ability.”
Listening is not a natural skill for many of us. A recent Harvard Business Review article says, “Less than 2% of the worldwide population has received formal education on listening effectively, and research points to a ‘crisis in listening’ as organizations spend 80% of their corporate communication resources on speaking.” That article goes on to mention studies that show “people are distracted, forgetful, or preoccupied 75% of the time when listening.”
For insights on how the most effective leaders can improve their listening skills, I turned to communications and leadership development expert Rowena Crosbie, president of Tero International, an interpersonal skills research and corporate training company.
I asked Crosbie if leaders are generally good listeners. She challenges leaders to think about who the great listeners are in their lives. “Jot down their names,” Crosbie says. “How many are on your list? How do you feel about these people? You probably think highly of them.” Crosbie says it is estimated that we each have a network of 250 people, which is likely the number of people we know on a first-name basis or the number of people who might attend our wedding or funeral. “But when asked to name great listeners, few of us can come up with more than five names,” she says, adding: “For the people you lead, would your name be on their list of great listeners?”
Crosbie offers leaders 10 ways to be a more effective listener:
Prepare to listen: Before you have an important conversation, remove distractions so you can focus and give the other person your full attention. Switch off your cellphone and email alerts and put other work away. Create the right environment for listening. Close the door and proactively limit interruptions. Plan your questions and points in advance. This ensures you can devote your attention to listening rather than trying to figure out good questions to ask or what to say next.
Take notes: Taking notes is a powerful way to ensure you are listening effectively and to communicate to others that you are sincerely interested in their message. While there are many digital methods for note-taking, a pen and pad communicate nonverbally that you are their highest priority and your attention isn’t on a device. If the interaction is on the phone or Zoom, and if you are taking notes on your computer, let the other person know that the clicking sound they hear in the background is your note-taking, not multitasking.
Show an interest: Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks; to the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. Asking a good question communicates that you have not only heard what was said, but that you comprehended it well enough to want additional information. The best conversations are active.
Embrace silence: Don’t fear moments of silence when you listen. Embrace pauses as a way to give the other person time to finish their point, allow them to reflect on what they have said and express themselves fully. Let the other person set the pace. Give space and time for them to think. “Please continue” is a good phrase to keep the conversation going. If you do want to jump in with a comment, wait for three seconds to pass.
Full-body listening: Listening is often thought to be a task left to the ears, but it is a full-body activity. The most important nonverbal signal you can use to communicate listening is eye contact. Sit or stand in an open, symmetrical posture. Avoid making yourself smaller with gestures that close you to the other person, such as crossed arms. A relaxed posture slightly leaning toward the other person is usually most effective. Monitor your facial expression; nodding and smiling appropriately communicate interest and listening. Encouraging sounds like “yes” and “oh, really” communicate that you are listening.
Listen to the questions: Listen to the questions people ask so that you can understand what they are thinking about. After responding, you can often turn the question around and ask it back. Try this at a social event. The next time someone asks you what you do for a living or if you have children or if you enjoy baseball, briefly answer the question and ask it right back. You’ll probably find the other person’s face will light up and they’ll launch into a dialogue.
Listen with an open mind: One of the greatest listening challenges is to suspend our judgment and opinions and simply listen to the other person with an open mind. Good listeners challenge themselves to be present and open. When you realize your capacity for listening isn’t available at the moment or you are struggling to find common ground, say so. This will earn you the respect of others and yourself.
Send a note: A courtesy email following a meeting summarizing the key points and highlighting next steps is a gift to others. You don’t need to write a novel. Use the opportunity to provide evidence of your listening and to show gratitude for the time and relationship. This written follow-up helps prevent misunderstanding from poor listening.
Follow up: People are impressed when we demonstrate good listening skills in their presence. If you really want to differentiate yourself, demonstrate your listening skills by following up a few weeks or months later and refer to a point they made during your meeting as part of the purpose of your follow-up.
Do a self-audit: After meetings, pause for a few minutes and do a self-audit. How well did you listen? What can you learn? We often review our mistakes carefully but fail to review our successes. We can learn from both.
Learning to listen is a never-ending journey. Listening is important for leaders, and provides an opportunity to gain valuable information to advance your overall organization. The Dalai Lama sums it up perfectly: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”