Listen Up

Dynamic and influential leaders are often celebrated as having excellent communication skills. They are persuasive, exude confidence and inspire their teams to do great work with the words they say.  Speaking is only part of the equation though.  Great listening skills are often underrated and undervalued. This is unfortunate, because being able to truly listen is arguably one of the most important skills a leader (or anyone) can have. 

Our ability to really listen is often impacted by a variety of things. We may think we know what the person is saying before they’ve even finished saying it, we are often quick to interrupt and problem solve and our focus is often not on hearing the person, but instead on planning our response. As Stephen Covey states:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” 

While we all have a basic human need to be heard, we often are increasingly focused on getting others to listen to our opinions and agree with us. Generally, we now are able to simply surround ourselves with opinions and perspectives that very closely reflect what we already believe. We can watch TV, read books and join Facebook groups that perfectly feed back to us information that confirms what we already believe. Unfortunately, we often make much less effort to try to  understand another person’s differing perspective. Therefore, it is more important than ever to make a conscious effort to try to listen to others, especially those who we don’t agree with.

Listening effectively will not only make you a better leader or manager at work,  but it will probably make you a better person (I know this is a bold statement – I am usually not a fan of making these, but in this case I stand by it). The more we can expose ourselves to really try to understand others then the more empathetic we will be, the more balanced our perspective will become and the better we can understand the impact of our opinions and actions. 

 Why Listening Really Matters

Listening Develops Trusting Relationships: It is impossible to establish trusting relationships with others when they do not feel heard and their opinion does not seem to be valued. This does not mean that you have to agree with the other person, but instead that you make a conscious effort to at least understand their point of view.

Listening Often Avoids Communication Problems: Some of the most complex interpersonal issues are typically the result of communication breakdowns. People interpret conversations differently or have challenges understanding different perspective. Communication problems can be extremely divisive and cause significant rifts at work (and at home), so focusing on the most effective way to listen and communicate is incredibly important. 

Listening Improves our Ability to Work with Diverse Teams: As managers and leaders we typically oversee very diverse teams. You can find many resources related to how to best work with different ‘groups’ of people, especially different cultural backgrounds and different generations. There is no one size fits all in these situations though. For example, not all Millennial’s need to be treated in the exact same way and to think that there is a simple rule to working with a large group of people does not take into account the unique differences each person brings to the table. Each person has their own unique perspective that is influenced by a wide range of things. The most effective course you can take  is to slow down, listen closely and really try to understand that specific person’s viewpoint. This can take time and effort, but ultimately you will understand them better, the person will feel heard and you will be able to move forward much more effectively. 

How to Be a Better Listener

Give Listening Your Full Attention:  Oftentimes when we are talking to people we’re distracted and unfocused. It may be that we are rushing into a meeting or other things are distracting us, such as email alerts, phone calls or text messages. To really listen you need to give it your full attention by reducing anything that could be distracting to you, including shutting off your computer screen and phone alerts. Taking a few seconds to do this at the start of a conversation will also convey to the person that you really want to pay attention and that what they have to say is important. If we take these small steps then we will be much more able to fully focus on what someone is communicating.

Get the Whole Message: Oftentimes, when we enter into a conversation we already think we know what the person is saying.  We may have an idea of what the speaker is trying to convey,  but chances are we don’t know the full story. If we already have made up our mind about what the person is saying at the start of a conversation (or even before) then we miss lots of important information. It is helpful to ask questions and encourage the person to elaborate and expand upon their perspective. Pay attention to the full message by noticing nonverbal communication, including tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. 

Be an Empathic Listener: Focus on examining the context and the meaning behind the words. One of the best tactics is to listen to the emotion of what someone is saying. The well known book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ states that empathic listening is a true leadership competency. Empathic listening means we listen first with an open and respectful mindset. We try to understand the person’s needs, goals and pressures so that we not only understand the words, but the feelings and emotions behind them. 

Check Yourself: It is important to be aware of yourself and your own mood, especially when the conversation is focused on something you feel strongly about. It is easy to quickly get defensive and focus on how the other person is wrong. Harriet Lerner points out that when we listen defensively we automatically just listen for what we do not agree with. Try not to jump to judgments and also recognize how your own agenda may be influencing the conversation, instead of truly trying to understand the other person.

Stop Talking and Stop Interrupting: Pauses in a conversation can feel awkward at first, but it is important to get a bit more comfortable with silence.  If you don’t try to fill every space then oftentimes the real message will become much more clear. The other person may feel more comfortable to truly express what they are trying to convey and you will have space to actually think about what they are saying, rather than just reacting to the superficial message. 

It is also very important that you don’t interrupt the person. A big temptation for many of us is to jump in and offer advice or a solution before the person has even finished speaking. Before we try to ‘fix’ things we need to make sure that we are really understanding what the actual problem is in the first place and what the person is asking for. Oftentimes what presents as the surface issue is not what the real problem is at all. It is also very common that the person is not looking for you to solve the problem for them, but instead has another purpose, often just wanting to vent, get insight, or make you aware of a situation. Specifically ask the person what they are looking for before you offer your ideas. 

Truly focusing on effective listening can be time consuming and it may be that there is no way you can do this for every single person all the time, but just shifting your focus to be more mindful and aware of trying to listen will go a long way.

What are some listening tips and resources that have worked for you?

Have you ever worked with someone who was a really great (or really terrible) listener?

Do you see listening as an important skill and focus for a leader?

One Reply to “Listen Up”

  1. I really liked this post. There’s a chap in our new business project at work who is having a stressful time at the moment and I’ve not been doing a very good job of listening to him at all. Unusually, it’s because he’s doing really well and has people offering to help him scale up his business but he is concerned that that will change what he wants to do and why he set it up in the first place. I’ve let my own anti-online shopping and anti-big business agenda dominate my responses to his concerns rather than do what he probably needs, which is just to listen and give him the chance to work out what he thinks. As well as probably being ineffective for him, it’s also caused me stress because I hate being involved in problems I can’t resolve.


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