Being a good communicator is often cited as one of the key characteristics of a strong leader. But when people think of communication—for example, instructions from managers to their team—most think of how that person speaks to their employees, and often omit the fact that active listening is just, if not more important.
Truly effective communication is not simply about talking, it’s taking the time to listen attentively to others’ stories, asking questions, and mining conversations for depth and understanding. People often think they are good listeners, but active listening requires a conscious effort to hear and understand the complete message that’s being sent. Active listening means listening intuitively to the other person’s story, asking questions, and examining conversations for context and understanding with their needs in mind.
According to the Harvard Business Review, listening is a skill that is sadly undertaught, but during the pandemic, with the shift to remote and hybrid work, it has never been more critical for leaders to be active listeners. A 2015 study showed that 78 percent of undergraduate business schools list “presenting” as a learning goal, but just 11 percent identified listening.
The post identified three aspects of active listening:
- Cognitive: Paying attention to all the information that you are receiving from the other person, comprehending, and integrating that information.
- Emotional: Staying calm and compassionate during the conversation, and managing any emotional reactions—like annoyance or boredom—you might feel.
- Behavioral: Conveying interest and understanding, both verbally and nonverbally.
Quoted in a post on Inc.com, Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and author of the leadership book, Dare to Serve, says that one of the keys to her leadership success was a conscious decision to make her workplace one where people were treated with dignity and respect. This helped managers to listen and collaborate because workers felt valued. And while social media and technology are unequivocally enhancing our lives, they may be getting in the way of our developing our active listening skills.
A post on the Forbes.com website also discussed how an effective leader can actively listen so they can make better, more informed decisions while staying engaged with employees and stakeholders.
Members of Forbes Coaches’ Council shared some active listening tips:
- Stay in the moment. Active listening requires presence, patience, and practice.This shows your interest in others’ views, helps you gain trust, and allows you to gain a deeper understanding of your team.
- Don’t respond too quickly. Take in what you are hearing, thank others for their input, and tell them you’d like a few days to digest what they’ve said. Then schedule a time to follow up.
- Practice humility by asking, “What am I missing or getting wrong?” This requires humility because you need to believe that you might not have understood, and to trust that there might be something more worth learning.
- Try a collaborative mindset. In addition to humility, and curiosity, the willingness to hear other viewpoints makes leaders more creative and collaborative because they know that their own knowledge will always be there, but the wisdom of the team is of equal importance.
- Ask questions! Leaders need to realize that actively listening to others and leading by asking at least two questions for every one that they answer helps employees feel heard. Be curious.
- Learn to read between the lines. Active listening involves learning and understanding body language, communication, and management styles. Leaders who listen intently and respond clearly will feel respected and supported by their teams.
- Make a checklist to stay focused. To be present while an employee is speaking, silence your phone, turn off notifications, and remove any other distractions. Then, listen and only ask questions once the speaker is finished.
- Try not to interrupt. It’s tempting to rush in and share your thoughts, but when you interrupt, you reduce others’ motivation. Take a deep breath and focus on their words.
- Active, deliberate listening asks that you concentrate on not only the content of the words, but also the emotion behind them. Be open and receive the entire message being communicated.
Hand in hand with active listening is trust. Great Place to Work, a global research consultancy that partners with Fortune Magazine to conduct an annual study of “best companies,” confirms that more than 90 percent of employees surveyed believe that management is transparent in its business practices. Employees who feel their opinions and concerns are listened to are more likely to trust their employers. Transparency and active listening will increase your team’s engagement and satisfaction, making learning how to listen actively a win-win for all.
Melissa Powell is the COO of The Allure Group. She has nearly 20 years of experience coordinating, assessing, and improving senior care in New Jersey and New York City.
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