Let’s pretend you find a genie in a lamp on your way to work Monday morning… when you rub the lamp, the genie will grant you mastery of one leadership skill that you can carry with you for the rest of your career. Here’s my advice – choose the ability to listen.
Listening is an art, yet very few leaders can claim to be great listeners. In fact, of all the leadership skills, this is one where we tend to get in our own way. Because listening is so natural, most of us don’t see the need to get better at it. Of course, by now you’ve learned all the classic techniques for active listening – lean forward in your chair, maintain eye contact, nod your head, paraphrase what you’re hearing, ask questions, pause before reacting, etc. But the real issue isn’t whether you’re merely demonstrating the behaviors of active listening. It’s reflecting, absorbing, and acting on what you’re hearing that will establish your reputation as a great listener.
Here’s a simple way to think about listening – realize that people only want to tell you one of three things: facts, opinions, or feelings. Your job is to listen for all three, and interpret the message for meaning and purpose. Here’s the critical link: Effective listening happens when you are receiving and interpreting the message in the same way that the employee intended it. So how do you maximize the odds of that happening?
First, do some pre-reflection about the person sending the message. There has to be something they are thinking, feeling, or wanting you to believe that is worth listening to; in other words, ground your listening in a legitimate reason for listening. Try this – before you sit down for a 1:1 or walk into a staff meeting, remind yourself why you’re going to listen to each person. What is the context? Where are they coming from? What’s been valuable about their messages in the past? Listening effectively starts with getting yourself ready to listen.
Second, people vary greatly in their communications style, so understand how each person expresses themselves. Your challenge is to absorb the message and tease out what’s most important. This is critical - failing to recognize what’s most important is what leads to ineffective listening. You may have heard what they said, but you missed what they wanted to convey. This is the classic “crossed wires” feeling that people walk away with sometimes – it’s what produces the “he didn’t hear me” comments. You can ensure more messages hit their mark by reminding yourself of the three types of information above, and paying close attention to what it is they’re really trying to communicate.
Finally, once you have absorbed the most important piece of information, act on it. Part of effective listening is responding appropriately; this tells the person you heard them. Articulating what you feel is the most important part of their message will take the conversation right to the heart of what matters, and will lead more quickly to agreements or resolutions. Again, try this – if they’re relaying an opinion, but it seems packed with emotion, ask about the emotion part. By paying close attention to what’s most important, you can proactively take the conversation where it needs to go. As a leader, it’s important not to be too passive or use active listening as a crutch; once you feel you’ve identified the most important part of the message, ask about it. Put it out in the open and deal with it directly. Put the “active” in active listening by moving on to solutions or a deeper conversation.
It’s not like you don’t know that you should be listening and paying attention; the issue is that you’re not always doing it. So try this – practice getting yourself ready to listen by reflecting ahead of time on the person and their communications style. Next, practice really absorbing what’s most important from their message. Then, act on what you’re hearing. Work on becoming a better listener – it will change the way people experience your leadership.