Numerous studies have shown that listening is an art. Listening requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, and others over self. Unfortunately, recent research shows that very few individuals, especially in the business world, possess the ability to listen effectively and that can damage a management team’s ability to function. Not only can a lack of effective communication create tension among employees and reduce motivation, but it can also result in poor performance and financial decline. But listening is something that many business strategists like Michael Capiraso recommend as a tool of effective leadership.
There are many key traits of being an effective leader – and listening is at the top of the list. Listening encourages employees to engage, increases diversity, helps bring new ideas to life, promotes more successful entrepreneurship, and gives companies an advantage over others in today’s competitive marketplace.
What is effective listening?
Although researchers have studied listening habits for decades, studies show that effective listening requires more than just not talking. Instead, it requires attention beyond listening to words – it involves being attentive to a speaker’s body language, facial expression, mood, and natural behavioral tendencies. As Peter Drucker says, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Let’s think about that.
Research conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health supports this hypothesis. Rick Fulwiler, Ph.D., CIH, CSHM, president of Transformational Leadership Associates, program director at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and former director of health and safety worldwide at Procter and Gamble, states the following: “The overarching principle of effective listening is to seek first to understand, then to be understood.” He continues, “It requires much more energy than just passive listening, but you will not be as successful without effective listening skills.”
What skills are required for effective listening?
It is important to understand how the basics of effective listening can open doors for leaders around the world. However, it is imperative to not only understand the ideas presented here but also incorporate them into your business practices. Here are a few things to consider when working toward quality leadership through effective listening.
Stay in the Moment
Have you ever had a conversation with someone and then stepped away only to realize you did not have a clear understanding of their viewpoint or what they said? Instead, you spent the entire conversation either speaking aloud or thinking about what you were going to say next? This is one of the most common and detrimental habits of human beings, and learning how to quiet our minds and listen to what others are saying is critical to becoming a good listener – and a good leader.
To show that you are paying attention to the listener, consider doing the following things: Look directly at the speaker, put aside any intrusive thoughts, and avoid being distracted by environmental factors. To show that you are listening, occasionally nod, smile, and use other facial expressions, make sure your posture is open and demonstrates interest, and encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments such as “yes,” or “uh-huh.”
Rather than formulating your response while the other person is speaking, listen attentively and wait to respond until they are finished. This reflection period demonstrates to others that you are hearing and understanding what they have said.
The biggest challenge to mastering this skill – especially in today’s fast-paced world – is that it contradicts our ability to maximize time … or so people think. Employees and leaders assume that an expedited conversation creates greater efficiency and that there will be more time in the day to focus on other tasks. However, reflecting on and responding to what was just said in a conversation can save time by reducing errors. Participants can clarify their needs and confirm the next steps in the process.
Leave Your Prejudices Aside and Have an Open Mind
Often when you enter a conversation with an individual, you commence with certain expectations. Your previous experience with that individual impacts your ability to listen carefully and to respect their input. Therefore, instead of entering a conversation with pre-established expectations and prejudices, you should try to remain open-minded.
By entering every interaction with an open mind, you are adopting a growth mindset. You are allowing yourself to change your mind or to see things from a different point of view, which is critical for developing leadership skills and a successful communication plan.
If you hire people you believe in, then you should want to hear and appreciate their input. If you find yourself reluctant to listen to their feedback, then you may want to reflect on how those employees contribute to your team and what changes you might make (either from your perspective or in consultation with human resources) to improve existing dynamics.
Listen Beyond the Facts
Words are not everything. When individuals speak, they are often influenced by either previous or current personal experience and thus respond accordingly. This means that if team members are experiencing low self-esteem because they recently made an error, or if they are having a hard time in their personal lives due to some outside issue, their communication with you could be negatively impacted.
As a leader, you want to identify and understand such changes in team dynamics by being attentive and listening to employees beyond the facts that they present. Observe how people interact with you and determine how their behavior changes over time. When you identify shifts in a team member’s behavior, open the door for them to share their experience and identify ways you can support them. Never push them to share personal details beyond what they’re comfortable with – this goes against human resources (HR) policy. However, you should show genuine empathy and understanding. Such a response can help the employee move beyond their challenge and continue to be a contributing member of your team.
Do Not Interrupt
During such conversations, you may become excited about a particular point you want to make and unintentionally interrupt the other person. Avoid doing this at all costs. Interrupting an individual mid-speech can have negative consequences. First, it shows the speaker that you do not appreciate their full input. They may feel underrepresented in the conversation, or worse, they may walk away resentful of you and the interaction. Second, you may miss out on hearing their great ideas. Some people take longer to express their point of view, and having patience in this situation can pay off. By waiting to respond to the speaker until they are finished, you provide them an opportunity to fully express their opinions and thoughts. Who knows what could come out of such open conversations.
How Quality Leaders Respond
Effective listening is based not only on how you listen but also on how you respond. Follow-up questions are really important – you want to be as analytical as possible, especially at the beginning of the conversation, when you are just starting to put your ideas together.
The first step in responding to another person’s ideas is to repeat or paraphrase what they have already stated. This ensures that both of you are on the same page in the conversation and clarifies that you understand the other person’s input or needs.
Once you have clarified your understanding of the conversation, focus on asking open-ended questions. They prompt further engagement. Such questions generally begin with “why,” “how,” or “what if.” By contrast, close-ended questions can be answered with a single-word response: “yes” or “no.” They do not generate further discussion and often lead to a conversational stalemate.
When you steer the conversation toward open-ended questions, you are likely to learn more about your employees’ thoughts and ideas and understand where they are coming from. You show them that you are interested in what they have to say and care about their ideas. You allow them to provide more details about the topic at hand.
As you learn to incorporate these changes into your communication style, you will see the positive impact they have on employees’ responses to leadership. This means building credibility and rapport with your employees, which will translate into genuine company benefits.
Michael Capiraso on How Listening Can Improve Your Leadership Qualities
Listening to your employees lets them feel heard. Overall, you should do the following for your staff:
- Promote better business communication
- Build trust and strengthen relationships
- Improve teamwork and show employees you care
- Help resolve interpersonal conflict
- Encourage employees to express their opinions and perspectives
- Promote transparency and breed loyalty
- Improve employee morale
- Reduce employee turnover
- Inspire professional development and improve overall performance
- Open the door to new ideas and possibilities
Assess Your Strategy
Now that you have a better understanding of how to listen effectively and the importance of listening to be a quality leader, you need to assess where you are on the communication spectrum. A deep and honest assessment of how you currently communicate and the identification of ways to improve your communication style can offer you and your team the chance to embrace and further improve a growth mindset.
So, why not start listening to your employees today? Why not pay attention to what they are saying? The benefits might be unknowable, but they are not unattainable. Stop talking and start listening.
Leaders must balance their intensity and desire to perform with compassion and attention to employee needs. Being more mindful of each other’s stress and tension points requires leaders to boost their emotional intelligence.
Listening is one of the most important aspects of productivity.
Research confirms the following:
- We learn 85% of what we know through listening.
- Humans generally listen at a 25% comprehension rate.
- On a typical business day, we spend 45% of our time listening, 30% talking, 16% reading, and 9% writing.
- Less than 2% of all professionals have had formal education on how to understand and improve their listening skills and techniques.
So what does this mean for you and today’s business leaders? In the words of the Dalai Lama, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” This is the message we all need to heed as we move forward in today’s world. For more information on listening, and business leadership, be sure to check out Michael Capiraso’s interview on Running for Real.
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