No one likes to feel ignored. A manager who gives direction and input only to find his feedback hasn’t been heeded will be one stressed-out leader. On the flip side, an employee who has been trying to communicate certain issues to her manager but hasn’t seen any action on the part of her boss will feel defeated and shut out.
A study by Stanford University found that listening is one of the most crucial leadership skills you can have. That can be taken a step further: In a well-functioning workplace, listening is a critical skill for anyone, regardless of position. And yet, so few people possess the ability to listen like a great leader.
That means giving someone your full, undivided attention and listening with empathy – putting yourself in their shoes and and truly understanding their perspectives with the goal of finding a way forward that benefits everyone. As the Harvard Business Review wrote, the legendary Henry Ford once said that his great secret to success was the ability to listen in this way.
But, as the HBR pointed out, many people are simply bad listeners. They try to dominate the conversation, or they react so quickly to what others are saying that everyone feels cut off. It might be tough to admit it, but egos definitely impede good listening.
Being a great listener is the hallmark of a world-class leader, and you’ll be amazed at the way people treat and respond to you when they feel they’ve been heard themselves. It’s worth practicing the habits of strong, active listening. Here are five ways to do so:
1. Plan ahead
Not every conversation is entirely predictable, but for the ones you have planned – like a meeting – you should do everything you can to prepare for it. In an interview with Fast Company, David Grossman, communications consultant and executive coach at The Grossman Group, said that it’s worth looking over the agenda for the meeting so you know what will be expected of you. It’s much easier to listen carefully when you can anticipate everything coming your way.
“Going into the meeting, it always helps to understand what you need to get out of the meeting,” Grossman told Fast Company. “Once you know what you need, specifically, you can then take a look at the agenda and really pinpoint those times that you want to make sure that you’re really paying attention.”
Even for a scheduled one-on-one meeting, learn a bit about the situation beforehand so you know what you should be listening for.
2. Hone in on nonverbal cues
Being an active listener doesn’t mean just hearing the words that are coming out of someone’s mouth. Much of the communication that takes place between people is nonverbal – that is, it happens through subtle cues like shifting posture, eye contact, facial expressions and so on. There have been mountains of studies on reading body language, and it’s all well worth checking out, but the fact is that if you pay attention, you can usually puzzle out what someone is really saying to you.
If someone’s body language doesn’t seem to match up with what he or she is saying, it’s usually fair to say that you should be probing a bit more to see what’s really going on. Do they seem excited about a particular point? Ask them a bit more about what they’re excited about.
If you see someone get visibly agitated when a particular topic comes up, it’s probably an indicator that they have something they want to say, but they haven’t been able to say it yet. Stay aware of these behaviors and use them to guide your side of the conversation. People will be grateful and possibly even amazed at how you knew they had something more to say.
3. Be aware of your own body language
It’s not enough to be mindful of others’ body language – you need to pay attention to your own as well. Sure, it’s tough to stay 100 percent attentive over the course of a long workday, but you should never openly show complete disinterest in someone.
When you’re speaking to someone, be sure to avoid slouching, texting or emailing during the call, looking around the room or other behaviors that demonstrate a clear lack of attentiveness. This will leave the other person feeling ignored. If you truly don’t have time for a conversation, politely make that known beforehand and offer to schedule some time for a chat afterward.
4. Ask questions and make follow-up statements
As the HBR noted, one of the most surefire ways to practice active listening is to ask questions and follow up with the key points of what you’re hearing. If someone makes an interesting point, ask them some questions – how did they reach that conclusion? What do they think are some implications of it?
Even simply repeating key points or paraphrasing what they said is a good way to demonstrate your attentiveness while also helping you remember the critical details of the conversation. These are some of the most obvious ways to show someone you’re really listening and taking heed of what’s being said.
As a side note, Grossman explained that the use of common verbal affirmations like “mm hmm” or “right,” should be used sparingly. They can certainly be an indicator of active listening, but doing it too much comes off as rude and inappropriate.
5. Take notes
Obviously, you won’t be taking notes in an informal conversation. But in a meeting with your team or an important individual, you should take notes on what people are saying. Not only will this help you accurately remember what was discussed, but it’s a powerful way to show that you’re committed to hearing people out and taking their feedback into consideration.
“Research shows that you pay greater attention and you remember things more when you take notes,” Grossman stated.
Great listening is important for a leader, but it’s just as important for those aiming to become leaders. People remember who listened to them and made them feel important, and if you can do that, you’ll be seen as a natural leader.
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