Listen Up! Strategies for Listening Like a Leader
July 18th is National Listening Day.
Although it may seem like the best way to commemorate the occasion is to blast the latest Taylor Swift album as you dance around the living room, perhaps we can take the opportunity to talk about what it means to listen like a leader.
An essential element of leadership mastery is not only listening effectively, but also making employees feel heard.
Have you ever been in a heated discussion with your partner where they exclaim in frustration, “You aren’t listening to me!" I’ve been on the receiving end of this accusation more times than I can count, and it takes every ounce of relationship skill in my body not to immediately respond with a defensive retort along the lines of “Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I’m not listening.” After too many nights that ended with someone on the couch, I eventually learned a hard lesson about the vast difference between the act of listening and the skill of making someone feel heard.
In the absence of shouting and modifications to sleeping arrangements, coworkers also find compelling ways to emphasize the importance of listening skills with their colleagues. When we receive feedback that we are distracted in meetings, dismissive of others' ideas, defensive, argumentative, or condescending, what we should really hear is “I’m not making this person feel heard.” When colleagues don’t feel heard, they don’t feel valued, and without intending to do so, leaders create perfect conditions for disengagement (aka "quiet quitting") and departure (actual quitting) when they don’t know how to effectively listen to their teams.
Effective listening is one of those foundational skills required to be a successful leader because, without it, few other workplace contributions seem to matter. No one wants to work for a leader who doesn’t make them feel heard and valued for their input. At the same time, listening is also one of the soft skills that suffers the most when leaders are under intense pressure to perform. Avid multitasking and half-listening have become survival tactics that carry long-term consequences of limited leadership effectiveness and employee disengagement.
Well my Fearless Leaders, it is time for a Leadership Lesson Crash Course in listening like a leader. Together, we will evolve our concept of listening beyond paying attention to sounds and learn what it takes to make our colleagues feel heard.
Step One: The Physical Act of Listening
Most of us mistakenly believe that if we pay attention to the words coming out of someone’s mouth, we have satisfied the threshold required for listening. Someone is talking, I am hearing the words; therefore, I am listening, right? If only it were that simple.
Attuning to sound only the first of subsequent steps in the process of effective listening, and it is deceptively easy to mess up. Many of us engage in unconscious non-verbal cues that betray our listening efforts and impede the process of making someone feel heard. The essential first step in listening to anyone involves demonstrating engagement, receptivity and interest with your presence.
Show intent to listen by preparing your physical environment. Eliminate distractions by closing the door and putting your phone out of sight instead of face-down next to you. When possible and appropriate, remove physical barriers (like desks) between you and sit alongside the speaker in a conversational way.
When listening remotely, give full attention by resisting the urge to multitask! Minimize open windows, mute notifications, and set your video conferencing settings to speaker view. No matter how subtle you think you are, it is painfully obvious when someone is doing two things at once.
Ensure your body language shows receptivity by sitting in an open posture. Uncross your arms, lean slightly forward, and maintain proper, unawkward eye contact to communicate full attention.
Pay attention to conversational habits that ay impede, rather than facilitate communication. Avoid incessant head bobbing, fidgeting, or punctuating the conversation with too many “uh-huh"s to demonstrate attention. These efforts unintentionally communicate implied redundancy (as in, “I already know”) or pressure to speak (as in “hurry up!”) that run contrary to effective listening strategies.
Step Two: Get Curious
The second step in listening is not responding – it is seeking to understand before you respond. Repeat that mantra over and over again until you fully absolve yourself of the responsibility of an immediate response when someone has communicated something of importance. Your competency as a leader is not evaluated by how quickly you respond, but instead by your ability to demonstrate genuine curiosity and interest in understanding what someone has to say.
The first words out of your mouth should be a thoughtful, open-ended question or two that communicates sincere desire to see things from someone else’s perspective. Get curious, seek to understand, and don’t assume you know the answers to questions you haven’t asked out loud.
Avoid rhetorical questions at all costs - nothing will derail listening efforts faster than a snarky statement in the form of a question.
Important conversations deserve a greater investment in understanding. Take extra caution with sensitive communication by asking more questions to fully understand the message.
Step Three: Communicate Comprehension
Here’s the final key to listening that most of us miss – if you want someone to feel heard, they must feel understood. While step two conveys an interest in understanding, step three lets the speaker know you’ve got it right. The goal here is to paraphrase and summarize what you heard in your own words. This is not a simple act of parroting, but an attempt to convey to the speaker that you are adequately picking up what they are laying down.
Start off with “So, what I am hearing you say is…” or “What you want me to know is…”
Ask the speaker if you’ve got it right and encourage them to tell you if you are missing any important elements of the message.
The magic of communicating comprehension is not just to demonstrate active listening and make someone feel heard, it is also to open a window of receptivity. We are more likely to accept a response, entertain an alternative point of view or see things from a new perspective if we feel understood first.
Bonus Step: Time Your Response
In some cases, waiting to respond is a powerful act that communicates a sincere interest in evaluating matters from a new perspective. For sensitive and important conversations, immediate responses can betray listening efforts and lay groundwork for accusations of not being heard. Take your time, consider the information shared, and choose a response time fitting to the complexity of the issue at hand.
While the individual steps to effective listening appear deceptively simple, the collective process of making someone feel heard is a skill that requires practice. It is the masters among us who know how to make everyone feel heard, even in the smallest of communication circumstances, and manage to avoid too many nights on the couch. Good luck!