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Active listening skills in leadership

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In this age of the Internet, smart phones and social media, it seems like people are talking at each other more than listening to each other. Pause for a moment to consider how many emails, text messages, voice mails and other interruptive, one-way communications you receive every day. Clearly, there’s a lot more talking than active listening going on.

And yet, few skills are more critical for effective communication and strong leadership than the ability to listen. Active listening enable employees, customers and other stakeholders to feel that their perspectives are heard, accepted and understood.

The challenge of active listening

Active listening is an art, a skill and a discipline that takes a high degree of self-control. To develop good listening skills, you need to understand what is involved in effective communication and develop the techniques to sit quietly and listen. This involves ignoring your own needs and focusing on the person speaking — a task made more difficult by the way the human brain works.

When someone talks to you, your brain immediately begins processing the words, body language, tone, inflection and perceived meanings coming from the other person. Instead of hearing one noise, you hear two: the noise the other person is making and the noise in your own head. Unless you train yourself to remain vigilant, the brain usually ends up paying attention to the noise in your own head.

That’s where active listening techniques come into play. Hearing becomes listening only when you pay attention to what the person is saying and follow it very closely. To do that, you need to stay aware of which of the two noises you’re listening to and consciously redirect your attention back to the speaker when you get off track.

How to engage in active listening

Active listening is the process of listening to someone in a way that focuses your attention on what they are saying so they feel heard and understood. The skills involved in this process aren’t difficult to learn, but they do take practice to master.

  • Focus on the person and the message. Focus your entire attention on the speaker, listening without judgement or formulating a response before they’re halfway through speaking. Pay attention to the speaker’s body language as well as their words. This can be the toughest step to master, because most people are used to listening to the noise in their heads.
  • Communicate your attention. People can tell when you’re not paying attention, so use your body language and gestures to let them know you are locked into what they’re saying. Some active listening exercises should be facing the speaker directly and making eye contact, sitting or standing in an open position, and smiling or nodding occasionally.
  • Acknowledge what the person is saying. From time to time, interject with something like “Uh huh” or “I see” to indicate you are following what the person is saying. This acknowledgement doesn’t mean you agree with the person; it simply indicates that you are actively listening. It’s also a good technique for keeping your attention focused on the speaker and the message rather than the noise in your own head.
  • Don’t interrupt. This can be another difficult step because the brain wants to jump in and solve the problem before the speaker has communicated the entire message. Interrupting shows impatience and disrespect, especially if you interrupt with an argument rather than a question. Worse, it frustrates the speaker and limits your understanding of the message. Active listening involves being patient and allowing the speaker to finish each point before asking questions.
  • Build rapport. After listening for a while, engage with the speaker by asking questions or reflecting back what you have heard. For example, say, “What I’m hearing you say is…” or “I’m not sure I understand…” This demonstrates that you are paying attention and will allow you to gain more information.
  • Be authentic in your response. Your job as the listener is to gain information, perspective and understanding. Be candid, open and honest when responding to the speaker, but do so in a respectful manner. If there is conflict or disagreement, focus your response on the issue rather than the person.

Afterward, some active listening exercises should be to follow this checklist to help assess the quality of your listening skills:

  • Did I still the chatter in my head?
  • Did I let the other person speak without interruption?
  • Did I try to see things from the other person’s point of view?
  • Did I convey interest in what the person was saying?
  • Did I “listen between the lines” to notice connotations and implicit meanings?
  • Did I resist the temptation to jump in with evaluative or disparaging comments?
  • Did I rephrase what the other person said so as to better understand it?
  • When I responded, did I speak clearly?
  • Was I honest? Did I show empathy?
  • Did I treat the other person with respect?

Other things to reflect on could be gauging how comfortable you felt the employee was in discussing things with you or if you asked enough questions about their interests during your small talk.

Reflecting on ways to improve is a great active listening technique that can help you structure personal goals and take responsibility for your progress.

Active listening in a remote work environment

Some ways to help yourself or your team be more engaged in remote calls are:

  • Instead of audio calls, try video meetings. Video calls can help add non-verbal cues to the interaction and strengthen remote relationships.
  • Turning off all notifications. While some noise is unavoidable (such as an occasional dog barking or a lawn mower in the distance), remember to minimise the noise you can control. Chat message notifications, incoming emails or text message sounds, calls, smart watch notifications – take the opportunity to pause all alerts a few minutes before your meeting. This will help minimise distractions, interruptions and help the speaker feel you have their undivided attention.
  • Responding to messages that don’t require a detailed follow-up with short acknowledgments or “emojis.” Sometimes when information is sent via direct chat messages, ensuring you give a quick acknowledgment or thumbs-up emoji can help let the speaker know that you received the message and they were not ignored. While it’s easy to miss things like this throughout the day, taking a moment to ensure you’ve responded to everyone in your chat messages before you sign out for the day is a great way to make sure no written chat communication goes unacknowledged.

The value of active listening

Active and effective listening has several immediate and important benefits for your organisation, including:

  • Promotes better business communication
  • Helps teams develop effective communication skills
  • Improves employee morale
  • Reduces employee turnover
  • Helps resolve interpersonal conflict
  • Encourages employees to express their opinions and perspectives
  • Opens the door to new ideas and possibilities

Perhaps most important, active listening increases employee engagement at all levels of the organisation. When people feel understood, heard and respected, they become more aligned with your vision of winning for the business. It also increases the level of trust within the organisation, which is a critical ingredient for making course corrections in today’s rapidly changing markets.

When trust levels are low, employees tend to nod their heads and pretend to agree with what gets said in meetings. As a result, important issues often don’t get brought out into the open where they can be fully addressed in the light of day. Conversely, when people trust each other — and especially trust their managers and supervisors — they feel safe to share ideas and perspectives that may not agree with the current status quo.

As leaders, we need as much information and as many different perspectives as possible in order to make the best decisions for our organisations. Active listening encourages people to be forthcoming with that information because they know they will be heard and respected.

Download this assessment to realign your active listening skills and develop your listening discipline.

This article was originally featured in the Vistage Research Centre.

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