Improve your leadership through active listening

Good listening is a core skill for leaders.  It builds trust, honesty, and mutual respect.  Active listening allows you to consider the perspective of others, engage employees, build and mend relationships, and to lead change more effectively.

Most of us like to think we are good listeners, after all, how hard can it be?  Based on evidence from Catapult’s 360-degree feedback survey, listening is something many leaders need to improve.  People are often surprised to find out that their peers, direct reports, or boss say they don’t listen well; that they are impatient, judgemental, arrogant, or unaware!

Whether you think you are listening isn’t really the point.  What’s more important is that people experience being heard.  If people experience being heard they feel valued and appreciated. To create this experience, leaders need to be active, rather than passive listeners.

Active listening is the willingness and ability to hear and understand what someone is saying. Here’s what can get in the way of active listening:

  1. Our image of leadership.  We tend to think of leaders as being action-oriented, visionary, directive, and having all the answers.  Such myths restrict our ability to be quiet and listen.
  2. Silence as agreement.  Listening attentively can be confused with agreement or acceptance of the other person’s ideas.  Active listening doesn’t mean you are agreeing.
  3. External pressures.  Leaders are busy.  The daily demands on our time can make it difficult to slow down and listen.
  4. Lack of know-how.  Do you remember heading off to “listening class” at school? Education systems focus on equipping us with “broadcast” communication skills of writing and talking.
  5. Individual styles.  Our working style may create barriers to effective active listening.  We find the DISC behavioural styles assessment revealing in this regard.

These six skills will improve the likelihood that others will experience you actively listening:

  1. Paying attention.  An open frame of mind and body language sets the stage for productive dialogue.
  2. Suspending judgement.  Be authentically open-minded.  Your goal in active listening is to really understand what the person is saying.  Acknowledge difference, and be patient.
  3. Reflecting. Paraphrase to confirm your understanding.  Reflect the other person’s information, perspective, and feelings (e.g. “It sounds as if you’re feeling pretty frustrated and stuck”).
  4. Clarifying.  Double-check anything that is ambiguous or unclear.  Use open-ended and probing questions (e.g. “I’m not sure I’m following.  Can you explain it again in another way?”).
  5. Summarising.  Briefly restate the core themes raised by the other person.  Accurate summarising confirms your grasp of their point of view (e.g. “It sounds as if your main concern is …”).
  6. Sharing. As you gain a clearer understanding of the other person’s perspective, you can introduce your ideas, or feelings, suggestions, and address any concerns (e.g. “May I share something similar?”).

So, take a breath, slow down and actively listen up.  It’s an investment that will reap many rewards.