When done well, the ability to listen and ask questions is powerful. The former precipitates the latter, which makes listening the most important strategy in our communication toolbox. We may think we listen well but our actions and attitude often suggest otherwise. Effective leaders are skilled at three types of listening.
Hearing is a biological function. Listening, however, is a learned skill like reading and writing that requires work, practice, and constant refinement. Active listening employs body language and verbal cues that signal to the speaker, “I’m paying attention to you” or “your points have validity.” This is crucial to building relationships and trust, and critical to good leadership.
Here are some tips for improving your active listening skills:
- Maintain eye contact with the speaker—there’s nothing more disrespectful than picking up your phone or looking over the speaker’s shoulders when he is addressing you directly.
- Send verbal and non-verbal cues that let the speaker know you are engaged, such as leaning forward, nodding your head, or making brief comments like “okay,” “go on,” “wow,” how about that!”
- Paraphrase what you are being told to clarify and show the speaker you are committed to making sure the message he intended is the one you received. Habitually doing this demonstrates integrity and boosts your credibility as a leader.
The words constructive and critical are not synonymous. Salesmen use constructive listening to be more effective in their pitches. Likewise, leaders can use constructive listening not only to allow others to be heard, but also to understand better how they can add value to the team or satisfy a need. When faced with a challenging conversation, employing these constructive listening tips will bolster your credibility as a leader:
- Avoid interrupting the speaker.
- Listen for what is NOT said.
- Ask for specific examples, and if the speaker cannot provide them, offer from your experience real or hypothetical examples that might help clarify the subject or issue.
- If the subject is touchy, refrain from impulsive responses, bias questioning, or negative body language and facial expressions, as such responses could shut down the conversation.
- If a discussion becomes emotional, do not mitigate the speaker’s feelings. Validate him and show empathy.
Sometimes a leader simply needs to function as a sounding board. Forming these habits will provide the messenger with the outlet he desires, lead him to a natural conclusion that enables him to handle the matter himself, and help you maintain your reputation as a respected leader.
- Be courteous, applying active and constructive listening techniques.
- Be open-minded. Rid yourself of preconceived notions about the messenger and the topic.
- Try to understand rather than judge.
- Remember acceptance and understanding do not require agreement.
- Rather than giving advice, guide the speaker through several resolutions and let him decide which is best.
- When appropriate, suggest resources for additional help.
Remember, effective listening takes practice. Set out to form positive listening habits. Ask confidantes for feedback along your journey. Ultimately, adopt a Golden Rule mindset. As with any form of communication, being a solid and effective listener is to listen to others as you would have others listen to you.