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Want to Improve Leadership Skills? Just Listen

Graphic Showing ListeningFrank Tyger once said, “Hearing is one of the body’s five senses. But listening is an art.” How perfect for those who want to improve leadership skills in the workplace.

It’s amazing and a bit sad how little real listening occurs in some offices. Many employees are simply “hearing” -- offering limited or inappropriate acknowledgement of what’s being said. What we need more of is active listening -- that is, the act of empathizing, clarifying, and, yes, leading.

Let’s look at the whos, whats, whys, and hows of the art of listening.

We Make a Mess When We Fail to Listen

Who need to practice active listening? You do, of course! If you’re reading this, chances are you are a leader. And leaders need to listen with their ears and their hearts to make themselves and their teams 100% effective.

What are the benefits of active listening? When we listen to the people we’re leading, we:

  1. Earn the right to advise, consult, and lead
  2. Set ourselves apart from others who don’t listen
  3. Build trust
  4. Gain valuable insight
  5. Display respect and appreciation for others
  6. Improve mutual understanding
  7. Enable others to open up
  8. Minimize misunderstandings

Why do we fail to listen actively? It’s often an involuntary impulse or a long-standing habit at fault. Here are five to start with:

  1. Short attention spans
  2. Trying to multitask
  3. Assuming or judging based on prior knowledge or experience
  4. Too busy talking over or at someone instead of promoting two-day dialogue
  5. Simply haven’t practiced this discipline!

So, how do we go about making these mistakes?

  1. Interrupting
  2. Jumping in with a response too quickly
  3. Playing “one-up” to try to match each point made
  4. Jumping to conclusions or judging what is being said too quickly
  5. Asking closed-ended questions (more on this in a sec)
  6. Giving ideas before hearing the other party’s
  7. Trying to solve the problem too quickly
  8. Shifting attention to other calls, people, tasks, etc.

These lists might have unearthed some unpleasant truths about your listening skills. Maybe you feel a little guilty. Don’t worry; it’s natural to not always be actively engaged all the time -- your office can be a busy, stressful place!

Improve Leadership Skills With These 7 Listening Tips

Here are some ways to better focus on your listener:

1. Probe for clarification, backstory, feelings, details.

Ask for clarification on any points you don’t understand. Prompt the other person by asking open-ended questions.

This means asking questions like the ones in this blog (who/what/why/when/where/how) versus ones that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” (is/was/did/could).

2. Listen for content and feeling.

What has the speaker emphasized? What emotional cues do you see or hear? Is anything being repeated? What is the speaking having difficulty getting out?

3. Listen for what’s different, not familiar.

Always listen for what’s unlike your own experience. Look for changes in opinion, tone, comfort level, volume, etc.

By keeping an ear out for their level of confidence, you also can interpret whether someone is asking or telling you something.

4. Get rid of distractions while listening; focus

Turn off that annoying “ping” you get every time an email comes in. If the conversation is important enough (to your employee, not just to you), forward your calls to voicemail.

Resist the temptation to look at the door or window. If you need to, meet in a neutral location that’s distraction-free.

5. Hear the whole story before judging, responding.

Never assume! Don’t shut the speaker down; this can prevent the speaker from coming back to you with issues in the future.

6. Encourage with body language, attention

Make eye contact. Nod when appropriate (but not on autopilot). Ask follow-up questions.

This all translates to: NEVER appear rushed, impatient or bored.

Perhaps most important of all, praise the employee for sharing, being open, and providing details.

7. Try these, too.

  • Empathize by putting yourself in the speaker’s shoes.
  • Take it all seriously -- don’t rush to minimize the importance of what the speaker’s saying.
  • Spot hidden assumptions and inaccuracies in what the speaker’s saying so you can address them.

Now Master Another Art!

Active listening is just one of the conversational techniques that can make you a better, more respected leader.

Having trouble giving that hard talk to a problem employee? Learn how to use candor here. Overreacting when you receive feedback yourself? Learn how to accept it with grace here. And if you're ready for the full palette of supervisory training, click the green button below to access our Workplace Conversations e-learning course.

Sounds like a master stroke of genius!

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