How Better Listening Makes You a Better Leader

In an era of continuous sound bites and instant messaging, the ability to listen well is in danger of becoming a lost art. More importantly, for many frenetic business owners, listening feels like a passive activity that’s not useful or worth indulging. They ought to reconsider.

“It’s much faster to move to a decision based on the information you already have,” notes business adviser Ram Charan. “But in doing so, you miss important considerations and sacrifice the opportunity to connect.”

Better listening also helps solve problems and overcome confusion, thus saving time otherwise lost to errors and miscommunication.

Here are six steps you can take to improve your listening skills.

1. Work on being more attentive. Start by making eye contact with the person who’s speaking. Sounds simple, but consider the number of times during a conversation that you’re scanning your phone or gazing around the room. Maintaining eye contact (and glancing away only occasionally) helps focus your attention and lessens the noise in your head that serves to distract you.

You can also demonstrate your attentiveness through body language. As the other person speaks, lean in and nod your head from time to time. This shows you’re listening and happy to let the speaker continue expressing her thoughts.

2. Refrain from interrupting. When a person begins speaking, you may think you pick up on the substance of her remarks within a sentence or two and, therefore, don’t really need to hear any more. Try to tame your impulse to break in. Interrupting someone is a not-so-subtle way of communicating, What I have to say is more important than what you have to say. Whether you’re interacting with customers, employees, or family members, this is discourteous and alienating.

Equally damaging to your ability to listen well is the energy you expend planning your response before the other person stops talking. It may seem like this saves a few precious seconds, but in reality you’ve already tuned out what he’s telling you.

3. Don’t jump in with your solutions. In many cases, when an employee asks you to help solve a problem, he’s not seeking your quick fix. Instead, he wants to discuss the various issues with you and arrive at a solution on his own. By listening well, you help him work through the process and enhance his problem-solving skills.

Similarly, hold off on making judgments about the other person during the conversation. If in the course of discussing a problem, he suggests a specific tactic, don’t say to yourself, “Now that’s a boneheaded idea.” That means you’re not listening; you’re judging. Try to understand where the other person is coming from and the perspective he offers based on his unique background and experience. Empathy is a key quality of any great leader.

4. Ask clarifying questions. If what you’ve heard is unclear or fails to make sense, wait until the speaker has finished and then ask clarifying questions. Helpful open-ended questions might include, “What did you mean when you said you ‘took action’?” or “Can you give an example of how you acted on your idea?” The answers you receive will either confirm your understanding of the conversation or guide you to better comprehending what the speaker meant to say.

5. Look for conversational “nuggets.” Try jotting down key words or phrases while the other person speaks. This helps you find what Charan calls “nuggets” in the conversation. You can frame your follow-up questions around these bits. “The benefits of this go beyond ensuring that you heard it right: First, the person on the other end of the conversation will be gratified that you are truly grasping the essence of their thoughts and ideas; second, this gratification will motivate and energize them to create more thoughts and solutions.”

6. Listen to what’s not being said. The speaker’s body language is often as informative as anything she has to say. Posture, facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice, etc., all communicate a person’s attitudes and emotions (even if they’re unaware of doing so).

Business owners prosper by connecting with other people. By demonstrating a skill for listening, you deepen the trust customers and employees have in you.

About Lee Polevoi

Lee Polevoi is an award-winning freelance copywriter and editor and a former Senior Writer for Vistage International, a global membership organization of chief executive officers. He writes frequently on issues and challenges faced by U.S. small businesses.
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