When we think of characteristics of a strong leader, “great listener” typically isn’t one of the first skills to come to mind, but maybe it should be. Particularly in this Covid-19 era as leaders are managing stressed, anxious employees often hesitant at best about the return to work, qualities like empathy and emotional intelligence will be in high demand – possibly separating leaders who succeed from those who fail. Arguably, one of the most necessary ingredients for this style of leadership is the ability to listen actively and authentically. No, not just vanilla, run of the mill listening that virtually anyone can do, but another level of listening.
Let’s face it – when someone else is talking, very often we’re not really listening to their point or concern. Instead, too often we quickly decide that we know their point and immediately focus our mental energy into formulating our response. When we think about it, this really shouldn’t be that surprising. As human beings we’re hard wired to care more about our stuff – our thoughts, opinions, rationalizations, feelings, perspectives, etc. That doesn’t make us bad people (I certainly hope not because I’m definitely wired that way). It just means that for most, active listening is a skill that requires cultivation – it’s not typically automatic.
This deeper, more engaged and empathetic style of listening is often referred to as active listening because it’s just that – active. Passive listening can in fact be counterproductive because it sends the other party the clear message that their message isn’t very important. Ultimately, it may send the message that the listener doesn’t think they’re that important – ouch. Instead, active listening is often described as “listening to understand” vs. “listening to respond.” The Psychology Today article “Feeling Understood — Even More Important Than Feeling Loved?” clinical psychologist Dr. Leon Seltzer explains how the ability to express to others that we “get them” is key to building strong relationships. “I’ve learned over the years how important it is for people to feel that another can pinpoint their thoughts and feelings — and, on the contrary, how upset they can be when they don’t feel understood,” insists Selzer. “In such moments, they experience a break in the relationship — and with that, feelings of uneasiness, aloneness, or irritation.”
The Harvard Business Review article “What Great Listeners Actually Do” refutes the myth that the best listeners are passive sponges simply absorbing others’ feedback. “What these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines,” explain Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. “They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting.”
Techniques for Enhancing Listening
Like other leadership skills, listening skills can be enhanced with intentional effort and practice. If this might be an area that you might need to develop or enhance, try a few of these techniques:
– Gather feedback from others. It’s always helpful to first get an assessment of how you’re perceived by others so ask a few trusted friends to provide some candid feedback. Avoid asking direct reports or others who might be tempted to assess you more positively. Most importantly, don’t respond defensively to the feedback or try to explain yourself. Instead, focus exclusively on just getting the feedback and thanking them for it. Your request might sound like this, “Linda, I know how important it is that staff feel listened to during this difficult time so I want to work on my listening skills. It’s hard for me to find people who will tell me the unvarnished truth, but that’s what I’m really seeking. How would you describe me as a listener? Can you think of an example where I listened particularly well/poorly? What can I work on as it relates to listening?”
– Acknowledge emotions during sensitive communications. When someone is highly charged, stressed, or otherwise emotional, it’s counterproductive to respond to the content and ignore the emotion. Indeed, people need to first feel heard with the heart, then the head so begin by acknowledging the emotion. “Jeff, I hear your anger and frustration about the radical shift in timeline, and it’s certainly understandable. Let’s talk through specific issues that will need to be addressed so that you’re not being asked to do the impossible.”
– Develop a habit of repeating back others’ points. One of the best ways to develop a style of “listening to understand” instead of “listening to respond” is by developing a habit of repeating back the essence of someone’s comments (e.g. “So what I heard you say was….Just to be sure I have this right…Your primary concern is….”) There’s a reason why marriage counselors often ask couples to use this mirroring technique with their spouse. Before one partner launches into their version of the issue, it’s imperative that they communicate to their partner that they really heard them first. The same is true in the workplace. Validating the other person’s comment is not just important for active listening; it’s also a tremendously important relationship building tool. People just love feeling heard and since so few people actively listen, there’s a tendency to really value those who do.
– Ask clarifying questions. A great way to truly engage in what someone else is saying is by asking clarifying questions about their comments. Yes, it sends a signal that you’re invested in their comments, but more importantly it mentally engages you more deeply into their comments, issues, etc.
– Avoid multitask listening. We’ve all been frustrated with someone who is ostensibly listening but is actually watching a video, catching up on their email or even mentally focused on their upcoming presentation. If you’re not able to fully focus on someone, it’s often better to be honest about that and suggest an alternate time when you can offer your full attention. “Lisa, I have to be completely honest with you. I’ve got a meeting with Craig in 20 minutes, and I need to prep for that. This issue is too important for me to shortchange it. Can I come find you this afternoon so we can grab a coffee and discuss it in detail?”
Active listening is one of those stealth skills that distinguishes organizational superstars. Indeed, great listening skills are often the “x factor” that we can’t seem to put our finger on but explains why someone is so well liked or seems to negotiate conflict so well. Great listeners build goodwill with every single interaction and that cumulative effect can be powerful. Arguably, listening is one of the most important elements of communication. Too often we’re just focused on ourselves and what we want to say, but the best leaders aren’t focused inward. Instead, they’re focused outward – on their team’s needs and concerns – and listening is oftentimes the first step.