As we begin to come out of the coronavirus pandemic and run smack into the turmoil around continuing racism in our country, I think it’s a good time to review an essential leadership skill: listening.
So often the key to overcoming a difficulty—whether it’s in the workplace or at home—is to stop talking and start listening. I often like to joke that if God had wanted us to talk more than listen, he would have given us two mouths.
Yet few people have mastered the art of listening. Why is this seemingly simple skill so difficult?
Research published by Wendell Johnson in the Harvard Business Review examined one way the listening process goes wrong. Johnson found that because of how our brains work, we think much faster than people talk. As we listen to someone talk, we have time to think of things other than what the person is saying. As a result, we end up listening to a few thoughts of our own in addition to the words we’re hearing spoken. Usually we can get back to what the person is saying, but sometimes we listen to our own thoughts too long and miss part of the other person’s message.
To sharpen your listening skills, learn to apply the following six practices.
- Resist the Temptation to Jump In. Sometimes people need time to formulate their thoughts. Particularly if you’re an extrovert, control the impulse to finish people’s sentences or fill silences with your own opinions and ideas.
- Pay Attention to Body Language. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Watch a person’s face and body movements. Are they avoiding eye contact? What about the tone of their voice—do you hear confidence, eagerness, or perhaps irritation? Be aware of clues that their silent behaviors provide, while being sensitive to your own nonverbal signals. For example, is your body language encouraging someone to continue with a conversation, or silently telling them to stop?
- Ask Questions. This is not about interrogation or control. Use well thought-out questions to seek information, opinions, or ideas that will help you understand exactly what is being said. Use open-ended questions to encourage communication; for example, “Can you tell me more about that?” Ask clarifying questions to check for understanding; for example, “When did this happen?” Ask prompting questions to encourage deeper thinking; for example, “What do you think caused this to happen?”
- Reflect Feelings. Acknowledge any emotions the person is expressing and show them you understand by restating their feelings back to them in a nonjudgmental way. This demonstrates that you not only understand their message but also empathize with their feelings.
- Paraphrase. Again, resist the temptation to respond with your own thoughts. Instead, restate in your own words what the person said. This demonstrates that you heard what they said and assures that you heard them correctly.
- Summarize. State in a nutshell what was communicated during the entire conversation. Don’t worry about repeating the exact words. What’s important is to capture the main points and general sequence of what was said. This is where you want to reflect the speaker’s conclusion back to them to indicate that you understand.
These practices are not easy—they require time and effort to master. But once you do master them, you’ll build more satisfying relationships. You’ll also avoid a lot of the errors, frustrations, and inefficiencies that come from unclear communication. Think of how our homes, workplaces, nation, and world could change for the better if we all learned to listen to one another.
Listening is one of the seven supportive micro skills of an SLII® leader. Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring more of these micro skills, so stay tuned!