We could all become better listeners. Most importantly, leaders must learn to really listen.
Really listening means:
- Waiting for other(s) to finish speaking before speaking
- Keeping the focus of the conversation away from yourself
- Asking open ended and non-judging questions that are relevant to the conversation
- Giving advice sparingly, if at all
- Noticing emotional cues in body language and voice tone
- Listening with your whole body; turning toward the speaker, leaning in, making eye contact
You’ll know you’ve really listened when you hear:
- Thank you for listening to me
- Even when we disagree, I feel understood
- You helped me to clarify my thoughts
- I feel appreciated
All of these things are important to the people who work for and with you. It helps them to feel accepted, a part of a team, safe, understood, and engaged in something that matters. And when that happens, your organization can soar.
It makes sense that it’s most important for you to really listen when:
There are differing views: Whether the decision is to be made by the team as a whole or you will be making a final decision that impacts your team, hearing them out is exactly what you need to do. Surface the elephants by listening and asking some open-ended questions, and the chances exist that decisions will be well thought out.
There are the same views: You’ll need to work harder here, and play the devil’s advocate or ask someone else to take on that role. If everyone’s view is the same from the get go, some may not feel comfortable offering a different opinion (learn to encourage those people!). There is no better time for you to listen deeply than when an important issue needs to be fleshed out completely.
Someone is emotional: Listening when someone is angry, fearful, or upset is the best thing you can do for them. At these times, they need to work out whatever is causing their distress by listening to themselves as you listen to them. Your tendency may be to try to solve their problem for them, which can shut them down. Instead, listen and ask them some questions that will help them to gain clarity (or better yet, ask them what they need from you!).
You want to collaborate: There is no collaboration without listening. Collaboration requires all parties to give up insistence on embedded beliefs for a greater vision and the greater good. It requires deep understanding and new pathways that are shared among the collaborators so that everyone feels a part of the effort. This kind of understanding can only come from really listening.
You need to build or strengthen relationships: Every leader who is new to their position has to build relationships. Most leaders, no matter their time in position, have to strengthen relationships. There isn’t a better way to do this than to avoid pushing your agenda on the people you’re connecting with. People will be more receptive to what you have to say when they feel you’ve listened to them first.
Really listening is the most important tool when you need to surface elephants, help someone to gain clarity, collaborate, and build or strengthen relationships.
More From Mary Jo Asmus
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive/leadership coach whose work spans decades of making a difference in the lives of hundreds of executives, leaders and teams in Fortune 500, mid- and small- sized business, governments and nonprofits. She focuses on facilitating individuals and teams from first-line supervisor to the C-suite to create, develop, and influence the relationships that can make them extraordinary.