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How Listening Can Make You a Better Leader

It is sometimes taken for granted that we know how to listen effectively, although it is not actually a skill that is often taught in school. We may have two ears and most of us can hear well, but ‘hearing’ is not the same as ‘listening’.  

As leaders, we are adept at tackling challenges, making decisions and getting things done which can often lead us to trying to find solutions when our people come to us with their problems.  As a result, we don’t always ‘listen’ to what they are saying - as Steven Covey said:  

“Most people do not listen to understand, they listen to reply”. 

The ability to listen effectively is a key ingredient in leadership success. It allows us to demonstrate to others that they are valued and understood, helps to build trust and commitment and develop strong working relationships with those around us. 

However, it is a tough skill to master. Research shows that we only remember around half of the information that we hear within an hour of being presented with it and this is largely due to the way in which our brains process information.  When someone talks to us, our brains are receiving all the sensory inputs – words, sounds, tone of voice, body language, background noises etc. – whilst also trying to process and understand all of that data.  Our brains therefore often choose to focus on certain elements to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed. 

Listening is the process of understanding what we hear, and by actively listening to others we can analyse and process what we are hearing whilst also looking out for body language and other non-verbal cues. 

Here are our three top tips for developing your listening skills:

1. Pay attention

Listening requires concentration and focus. Set aside distractions as despite what some may claim, it is virtually impossible to effectively multitask.  Put down your phone, turn away from the laptop screen and actually look at the person who is talking. Eye contact is important but that doesn’t mean that you need to engage in a staring contest – be attentive, present and listen to what they are saying. This will allow you to notice their body language, their facial expressions, tone of voice and sometimes what they are not actually saying.  Don’t interrupt, allow the other person to speak but if you don’t understand something or need to clarify, then ask them to explain it to you again. By staying focused and clarifying your understanding you are demonstrating to the other person that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say. 

2. Don’t jump to conclusions 

As mentioned above, when we listen to others we are often thinking about how we should respond.  This can lead us to jump in early and offer our own suggestions / advice before we fully understand what they are saying, or we may be guilty of selectively listening to what they were saying and focusing on what we think is the relevant part of the conversation. We all have our own personal biases, values, attitudes, and beliefs which can affect the way in which we hear information, so in order to effectively listen we need to put those aside and focus on understanding what they are actually saying – not what we think they mean. It can be useful to summarise what you have heard to make sure that you have fully understood, for example, “What I am hearing is…” and ask them to clarify if you are not sure. 

3. Ask relevant questions

Leaders who are perceived as excellent listeners ask open questions which demonstrate that they are listening and are keen to learn more. Open questions are used to gather information and encourage others to speak and share their thoughts. They start with words such as ‘Why’, ‘Which’ ‘How’ as opposed to closed questions which lead only to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.  Open questions allow us to gain greater insight and can provide an opportunity for team members to take the lead in problem solving, learning and innovation. 

Active listening is an essential part of effective communication and by improving our skills in this area we can foster better workplace relationships with greater levels of engagement, which in turn increases job satisfaction, productivity and performance.  

On our leadership development programs, delegates are encouraged to develop, practise, and hone their active listening and open questioning skills through coaching and action learning sessions, which they then use in their own organisations to powerful effect, as Adam Finch-Turner, Head of Support Services at thinkproject explains: 

“Active listening, questioning, coaching, increased self-awareness, learning to reflect and change behaviour – these are all incredibly valuable skills that I have developed as a leader especially when applied alongside the business insight and knowledge available on LEAD™.” 

Similarly, Jo Bewley, Partner at BPE Solicitors found that:

“From being more aware of the impact of my behaviour on the team to the approach regarding discussions to be had, coaching has improved this by me being able to create a situation where team members are thinking for themselves rather than me just giving an answer, and they have the confidence to step in and take control of situations.” 

If you'd like to learn more about our next LEAD™ program starting in November, you can read more here. Or you can contact us directly here to arrange a meeting to talk through how we may be able to help you - we'd love to hear from you!



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