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!
When I ask people to talk about the best boss they ever had, they always mention one quality—listening. The best leaders are good listeners. Our research shows that listening is a critical skill for developing people, building trust, and creating a meaningful connection. But be careful—we’ve also found that it’s common for direct reports to score their managers lower in listening skills than the managers score themselves. I’ve said many times that God gave us two ears and one mouth because he wanted us to listen more than we talk. Let me explain some of the fundamentals of effective listening in case you may want to sharpen your skills.
Pay Attention to Nonverbal Behaviors. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears—watch a person’s facial, eye, and body movements in addition to the tone of their voice. Be aware of clues that their silent behaviors provide while at the same time being sensitive to your own nonverbal signals. For example: are you 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 the person while helping them feel heard. The best leaders ask open-ended questions to encourage communication, clarifying questions to check for understanding, and prompting questions to encourage deeper thinking.
Reflect Feelings. Acknowledge any emotions being expressed by the person and share your understanding by restating the person’s feelings back to them in a nonjudgmental way. This will help demonstrate that you not only understand their message but also empathize with their feelings.
Paraphrase. Restate in your own words what was said to demonstrate that you heard what the speaker was saying. Paraphrasing is useful to confirm that you understand what your team member was saying.
Summarize. State in a nutshell what was said over the entire conversation. The exact words are not as important as clearly capturing the main points and sequence of what was said. This is where you want to reflect the speaker’s conclusion back to them to indicate that you understand.
As you can see, effective listening is about focusing on what the other person is saying and then demonstrating that you understand and value their thoughts. Developing listening skills takes an investment of time but is the best way to build trusting relationships with the people you lead. Using these skills should get you off to a good start.
People often ask me how they can be more effective as a manager. One approach I recommend is to meet one-on-one with each of your direct reports for 15 to 30 minutes at least once every two weeks.
Having one-on-one meetings is a simple strategy and just plain common sense—but it’s not common practice, according to polling we conducted together with Training magazine earlier this year. When we asked people what they wanted out of their one-on-ones with their immediate supervisor, we discovered managers aren’t making time to meet with their direct reports on a regular basis—and when they do meet, they aren’t using the time effectively. (See infographic.) Continue reading
I was talking with some friends at a recent morning men’s group. Our focus was on the importance of being connected to other people and what it means. We came up with five things we think help you really get connected to others—at work, and in all aspects of life. How would you rate yourself in these five areas?
- Listen more than you speak. We talked about listening a lot. If God wanted you to speak more than listen, he would have given you two mouths!
- Praise other people’s efforts. This one has always been so important to me. Catch people doing things right. That really helps you get connected with people.
- Show interest in others. It’s not all about you. Find out about people and their families and learn about what’s happening in their lives.
- Be willing to share about yourself. In our book Lead with LUV, my coauthor and former Southwest Airlines president Colleen Barrett said that people admire your skills but they really love your vulnerability. Are you willing to share about yourself? I think being vulnerable with people is really important.
- Ask for input from others—ask people to help you. People really feel connected if they can be of help to you. Continue reading
No matter who you are, people can come at you daily with their egos blasting. Some egos come from false pride—where they think more of themselves than they should and want more credit for things. Others come from self-doubt and fear—where they think less of themselves than they should and are protecting themselves. How do you deal with these people?
Try to keep focused on leading with a servant’s heart. It can be part of your daily habits, such as how you enter your day by reminding yourself of the difference you can make in the world. It’s a matter of making a habit of practicing a helpful attitude when you are interacting with people. The question you want to keep top of mind is, “How can I help?”
For instance, if someone comes to you and says, “I’m sick and tired that nobody seems to notice my contributions around here,” you could say to that person, “What I am hearing from you is that you don’t think your work is appreciated. I think you are doing a wonderful job on …” and then be very specific as to what that person is doing right. After that, ask, “What can I do to help you get over this feeling of not being important enough? How can I help you through this?”
Or, if someone is coming from fear and saying, “I can’t believe it, I just got another project dumped on me and I don’t have time in my day to work on it,” let that person know you understand by saying something such as, “Wow, I can hear that you’re really overwhelmed right now. Is there a way I can help you with this? Is there anyone I can talk to that might be able to partner with you?”
A phrase I like is lead with your ears. Really listen to the person you are interacting with and see if you can respond in a caring and heartfelt way. When you ask the question “How can I help?” you’ll be amazed at how quickly it can diffuse the frustration another person is feeling. It can make an immediate difference to upset or fearful people just to know their concerns are being heard. By leading with your servant’s heart, you will set an example others can use to get away from their egos, move forward, and make a positive difference in someone else’s day.