Listening is a fundamental leadership skill. It seems so easy, and yet, it is actually quite difficult. Through my 20+ years of experience in the people space, I have learnt seven tips I would like to share that are easy to implement and guarantee great results.
If you are a people practitioner, a people leader or someone who "needs to people" in their jobs, then these will help you to master your listening.
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1. Listen to understand vs listen to reply
Let's face it people - we love to talk, especially about ourselves! When we are engaged in a conversation, there is a part of us just yearning to get in there and share how we also had a similar experience, how it was when we did that same thing, what we would have done in that situation. i.e. we find ourselves listening so that we can reply. Don't feel bad about it - this is the way we are wired. Yet, however natural it is, it does not make for very effective listening, especially in a leadership context.
The opposite of this is listening to understand. When we listen to understand, we are trying to understand where they are coming from. We work on buttoning down the hatches of our normal tendency to want to share of ourselves, and channel our energy towards understanding their perspective.
You will know when you are listening to understand, as you will be doing less talking and people are likely to engage with you on a deeper level.
2. Aim for the "that's right" bullseye
When we listen to understand, we are more likely to really get where the other person is coming from. A great sign that you've done this is that they will say "that's right". It could be that you fundamentally disagree with everything the other person has said, and yet, getting to a place where they feel heard is the important first step to effective listening.
If you have ever felt deeply heard, even by someone who is coming from a different angle, you will recognise the feeling of comfort it gives you to know that the other person "get's it". And hey, if you can both agree to how someone is feeling and how they see the situation - then you agree on something, and that is a great start!
3. Put away your technology
It's a small thing that's actually a big thing. When you are talking to someone, close your laptop, and turn your iPhone off or preferably take it away altogether. A laptop causes a physical and a psychological barrier. If you need to take notes, carry with you a notepad and pen. Technology can add great things to your leadership, and yet when it comes to listening, best to leave it out, and go old school.
4. Listen with curiosity vs judgement
It is very very easy for us to think as we listen to someone exactly why they are wrong. I am seeing it a lot at the moment on my Facebook feed regards the US elections! In short, people are listening (or reading in this case) through a lens of judgement rather than curiosity. When you listen with curiosity it leads the door open to understand what is going on and getting to the "that's right" bullseye.
For example, if you are listening to a leader struggling with their work life balance and bemoaning their excessive workload, you might jump to a judgement like "oh yeah, we all work too hard here" or "you should be thankful you've got a job" or "you don't work nearly as hard as I do". And yet, we can listen with curiosity and ask questions like:
- did anything trigger this feeling of being out of balance?
- how strongly do you feel about this on a scale of 1 - 10?
- are they committed to doing something or do they just need to vent?
- is this something they have experienced before?
- is there anything particularly stressful at the moment?
5. Practice clarifying the meaning
A fabulous coaching skill that will do wonders for your listening is to learn how to powerfully clarify what someone has just said. Clarifying is possible only when you really pay attention to what the other person is saying.
- You listen carefully to their words and tone.
- You observe their body language and facial expressions and if they are in congruence or not to what they are saying.
- You stay focussed and curious on what they are saying.
- You listen for what is not being said - the things that remain unstated "between the lines".
- You search for what they are really saying - the meaning behind the words.
Clarifying is essentially wrapping up in a bow the key message that the person has just said, and giving it back to them as a gift. In the example above about the leader feeling out of work-life balance; the correct clarifying statement could be "it sounds like you've got a lot on right now and are wondering how to fit it all in"; or "it sounds like you are really committed to getting through this work regardless of how stressful it is".
6. Quieten your inner voice.
Our brains can think much faster than we can talk. So, when someone is talking to you, your brain has excess capacity. As such, if you are anything like me, you can find your attention wandering whilst listening. This is where "mindful listening" comes in. Mindfulness is about focussing your attention in the present moment, and as such mindful listening is simply focussing all of your attention on listening to the other person. I find it helps to orientate your body towards them, maintain the right level of eye contact, if necessary take a few notes, and when you find yourself wandering (as you might) to gently guide your attention back to the task at hand - listening.
Practicing mindfulness at other times during the day - whether it be yoga, meditation or via an app such as Headspace will help your focus during these times.
7. The five question rule
And for those times when everything else fails, I have a simple rule to keep me on track. The five question rule is simply that - I am not allowed to talk about myself until I have asked five questions of the other person. For example, if they went to a conference, I probably want to talk about the conference I went to - but instead I might ask them, what was their favourite speaker? did they meet any interesting people? would they go again? what was their biggest surprise? have they learnt anything they have implemented already or plan to implement?
I hope these seven strategies can help you and the leaders around you to become more effective listeners.