Leadership is listening: Eight techniques to help you become a better listener
Becoming a better listener will certainly help you become a better leader, but it will involve more than just hearing the words your team are saying to you more clearly. Effective listening also involves taking responsibility to increase your understanding of the speaker’s intended message and providing acknowledgement of your understanding.
The thing that prevents many leaders from becoming better at listening is the same thing that often limits our other communication skills. As we have put in our guide to effective communication skills, “We often think we are more effective than we are.”
The first step is to decide you can improve. Once you’ve done that, here are several tips to help you become a better listener:
- Maintain regular eye contact. In addition to hearing what the speaker is saying, keep your attention on them and use eye contact to show you are listening. Avoid intense, hard staring as this can be perceived as aggressive or disrespectful.
- Direct your body towards the speaker. Face your entire body towards the speaker to show them that they have your full, undivided attention.
- Use non-verbal language to confirm your understanding. In addition to showing that you are listening through your body language, you can also show that you are understanding. For example, affirmatively moving your head can make more of an impact on the speaker than you’d think. This is often a better option than interrupting to communicate your understanding using words.
- Combine open and closed questions. To be an effective listener, you also need good questioning skills to affirm and clarify your understanding. Open questions provide a chance for the respondent to organise their thoughts and explain things in a way that makes sense to them. However, as open questions don’t give you any control over the scope or relevance of the response, use a combination of open and closed questions to clarify your understanding. For example, a classic open question is “How do you feel now?” Although the person you are listening to may not say it directly, after giving them a chance to describe their feelings, you may infer and follow this with a closed question such as “Are you feeling sad?”
- Paraphrasing. Learning to incorporate short summaries of the speaker’s message (using a technique known as paraphrasing) during your conversations will help you embed your understanding of everything that has been discussed so far and give them an opportunity to clarify anything you’ve misunderstood.
- Leave small gaps of silence. Take some time to process what you’ve heard and choose the right words before responding. Small gaps of silence will provide you with time to understand the message and ensure you leave the speaker ample opportunities to clarify, add further ideas or ask questions. They are also useful to help others focus on the subject and can prevent them feeling interrogated.
- Avoid jumping to hasty conclusions or assumptions. Give others an opportunity to respond to your questions or statements and avoid judging or evaluating without attempting to empathise or understand their views. Maybe you will not see things the same way they do, but by understanding where others are coming from you will be able to communicate more effectively and develop better relationships.
- Consider your environment. Although you won’t always be able to control your environment or delay a conversation until you are free of all distractions, it is important to minimise potential interferences as much as possible. If you know you need to discuss a crucial issue with a staff member, plan ahead so you can choose a time and place that will provide the best opportunity for you to listen effectively to their point of view. Provide a suitable environment without external interference such as noise, a tense atmosphere, or an inconvenient time.
Using the eight techniques provided above, you will not only listen more effectively but improve your relationships and build trust and credibility with your team, helping you become a more effective and influential leader.