We’ve all been in the situation where we feel the person who we’re with is not really interested in what we have to say. That leaves a powerful emotional impact, and it isn’t positive; if that person is our boss, we go away frustrated and belittled, and our motivation and sense of engagement are going to drop dramatically. Our feelings of responsibility, control and importance have taken a heavy hit. In the gap between doing only what we have to do and going the extra mile lies the difference between acceptable and exceptional performance. It’s in that gap that listening leadership pays dividends.
Inspiring leaders are intent on connecting with people and giving them the gift of their undivided attention. It is a skill, for we all have to work hard to overcome our natural inclinations, which make us bad listeners. What are they?
We get easily distracted. We want to have our say, so we interrupt. If we don’t interrupt, we concentrate on what we want to say and wait for a gap, rather than focusing on what’s being said. We make judgements about the speaker, which blocks our ability to hear what they’re really trying to say.
Perhaps we do listen, but we become more interested in content than in feelings. We don’t try to observe body language, so we stare into space while listening – or perhaps we listen without any facial expressions, remaining silent throughout. Then we leap in with solutions and don’t bother to show that we have comprehended what we have been told. We certainly don’t acknowledge how the other person might be feeling.
We are bad listeners without realising it. Yet, the simple act of listening well is inspirational in itself: by listening, leaders can remove barriers, pick up good ideas, and create an environment where people can speak up without fear of repercussions. They feel that they’ve been listened to. You may not agree with them, but if they feel you’ve really understood them, they’ll be more likely to listen to why you’re not going to act on what they’ve suggested. In turn, you earn the right to be heard.
The listening contract
First: I have to listen and understand before I can speak and be understood. It is when leaders do not follow this contract that they create ill feelings among employees.
Ironically, most leaders rate themselves highly for listening skills, while their employees inevitably rate them poorly. Why is that? The answer is all about whether the employee feels that they have been listened to. It isn’t about whether the leader has comprehended what they have to say, which is how most leaders judge their listening skills. This is why they will often quickly and correctly understand what is being told to them. So, they interrupt. They provide solutions, not coaching. They do not judge themselves on whether they have made the speaker feel like they have been given a darn good listening to. Yet, that’s exactly what the employee wants.
So, the first thing to do, in order to become a better listener, is to understand that employees want to feel that they’ve been listened to, that their views have been heard and respected.
To do this, inspiring leaders connect empathetically. Why? Because they know that empathy is the glue that holds relationships together. Empathy enables you to know whether you have managed to influence the people you need to influence. It enables you to understand their perspectives and how to deal with them. Without empathy you can’t build a team, you can’t build trust and you can’t make people feel validated.
To be empathetic means to be able to detect the other person’s emotions and understand their perspective. You can’t be a good listener if you lack empathy. Being empathetic promotes trust and that leads to open and honest communication, and that leads to the ability to resolve conflicts, to promote constructive change and to innovate.
The direct link between empathy and commercial success
There is a direct link between empathy and commercial success. Leaders who treat their staff well do so because they are tuned in to their needs and respond in appropriate ways. That leads to high levels of engagement, and that leads to high performance.
Being a good listener means paying attention actively. You have to remember that listening is not about you, so you have to focus on what’s being said. Stop worrying about what you’re going to say. Remember that judging someone is not listening, and as soon as you show that you’re judging, you will ruin your attempt to listen. Show that you’re listening by nodding, smiling and using other facial expressions. Watch for signals in the speaker’s body language, which will be sending you as many messages as the words they are using. Lean forward, nod often and recognize that your face will be sending signals back to the speaker.
Show that you recognize the emotion behind what they are saying. ‘I can see you’re excited about this idea.’ Or ‘I can see you are upset about what happened.’ Relate to them by expressing how you might feel if you were in their shoes. If you are not clear on the emotion behind the sentiment, ask: ‘How did you feel about that?’ Try to ask open-ended questions or questions to clarify. Ask questions that further discovery and enable better insight. Reflect back to them what you have heard but avoid parroting back exactly what they’ve said. This gives them a chance to agree, expand or refute your understanding.
Remember that empathetic listening is all about showing people that you have understood not only the idea or issue they are raising, but the emotional content behind it as well. Always summarize what you have understood and thank people for taking the time to share with you. As a leader your job is to build relationships and trust, so when you thank them for speaking, even if you don’t think there is value in what they have to say, you will make them feel respected and valued – and that’s the point.
We often think that communication is all about standing up and telling people what they need to know. The big mistake is to assume that they’ve understood what we mean. Skilful communicators always check what has been understood as part of the process of communicating.
Poor listening cuts a leader adrift
Poor listening is destructive to team dynamics and cuts a leader off from the information they need to truly understand what’s going on and manage the business effectively. This is why it is essential that leaders understand how toxic it is when they display displeasure at bad news. Do that, and it’s likely you’ll never get bad news from that individual again. Change your mindset and be a bad news junkie. Show people how much you want to get bad news. The faster it gets to you the faster you can take action.
Good listening isn’t only about one-on-one listening. It’s about encouraging members of the team to be good listeners. It’s about listening to customers, listening to colleagues and, especially, listening to your team. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an introvert or extrovert; either way you will still have to work on your listening skills. Introverts tend to listen well but don’t share their own views as much during a conversation. Extroverts like to share their views too much and need to work hard to ensure they don’t dominate the conversation.
No leader can be affective without listening. Listening is part of the process of decision-making, of developing and maintaining relationships, of problem-solving, of influencing, of driving change and of so many other aspects of leadership. Good listeners are charismatic, because they make people feel important and valued. When employees feel important and valued, they deliver high performance.
The good listener’s checklist
When listening, do you:
- get distracted?
- listen with half your attention?
- think about what you want to say and wait for the chance to say it?
- get impatient and show it?
- stare into space?
- have an impassive face?
- fail to observe body language?
- fail to listen for the emotions behind what is being said?
Do people tell you that you are a good listener? If not, why not? If you don’t know, ask them!
- Do ensure people feel you’ve actively listened?
- Do you listen with empathy?
- Do you show both positive and negative empathy?
- Do you summarize what you’ve heard?
- Do you act on what you’ve heard, and then tell people what you’ve done?
- If you haven’t acted, do you explain to people why not?
- Do you encourage all around you to be good listeners?
For more tips on listening and communicating virtually, find out how your body language comes across in online meetings and how to improve as a manager of a distributed team.
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