How to be a better listener

When we look at senior leaders’ 360-degree feedback, a pattern that emerges is that as many as one in four are not listening to their peers, their colleagues and their teams. The effects can be devastating for a company. But, despite today’s fast-paced business environment, even time-strapped leaders can master the art of disciplined listening. Conventional advice for better listening is to be emotionally intelligent and available; however, truly good listening requires far more than that.

Here are some tips to help you become a better listener:

Look out for what’s important

Listen intently for important content and focus follow-up questions on points that really matter. Whether or not this is your method, you should train yourself to look out for the key points in a conversation. Then let the other person know that they were understood by probing, clarifying, or further shaping those thoughts. 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 energise them to create more thoughts and solutions. Listening opens the door to truly connecting and is the gateway to building relationships and capability.

Understand the perspective

When working with peers in and across teams, work to understand each person’s frame of reference – where they are coming from. This is extremely important when disagreements arise. When you truly understand the perspective of others, you are most likely to reach productive solutions. All the participants will feel heard, whether their solution is adopted or not. Even better, it’s likely that the solution will not turn out to be one that was brought to the table by any one party; it will be a new approach crafted in the conversational environment you created. Active listening and probing (with humility, not aggression) energises groups, encourages them to reach consensus, and helps them arrive at new and better solutions.

Slow down

There is a reason that, over the years, you have lost your ability to listen. It feels too passive, like the opposite of action. It’s much faster to move to a decision based on the information you already have. But in doing so, you miss important considerations and sacrifice the opportunity to connect. Understand that as you begin to change your listening style to a more empathetic one, you may often feel inefficient. It takes time to truly hear someone and to replay the essence of their thoughts back them so that both parties are clear on what was said. The payback is dramatic, but it comes over the long run.

Keep yourself honest

No habit is broken without discipline, feedback and practice. As well as installing a personal mirror to reflect on your own behaviour, find a colleague to give you honest feedback on how well you are tuning in to the thoughts and ideas of your colleagues, managers, board of directors and others. Explicitly lay out an ‘exercise regime’ by which you will practice empathetic listening every day and strengthen your skills. Make a habit of asking yourself after interactions whether you understood the essence of what was said to you, the person’s point of view, their context and their emotion. Also ask yourself whether the person knows that they were heard and understood.

For leaders, listening is a central competence for success. At its core, listening is connecting. Your ability to understand the true spirit of a message as it is intended to be communicated, and demonstrate your understanding, is paramount in forming connections and leading effectively.

Truly empathetic listening requires courage – the willingness to let go of old habits and embrace new ones that may, at first, feel time-consuming and inefficient. But once acquired, these listening habits are the very skills that turn would-be leaders into true ones.

Develop an active listening habit

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