6 Practices That Will Make You a Better Listener

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.

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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?

 

  1. 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?”

 

  1. Reflect FeelingsAcknowledge 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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!

 

 

Take Time to Build Meaningful Connections

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve probably heard me say “The best minute of the day is the one you invest in your people.” Why do I believe that? Because leaders who invest time in their people are building meaningful connections. Those connections create inspired people and inspired leaders who benefit from those great relationships, and achieve great results, together.

Leadership is not about you. It’s about the people you are trying to influence. The more you understand about your direct reports, the better you’ll be able to help them achieve their goals. Taking time to work side by side with a direct report to determine their development level on a task lets them know you are interested in meeting them where they are. And it allows you to use the right leadership style, with the right amount of direction and support, to help that person get to the next level.

Here’s another way you can take time to build a meaningful connection with each of your people: schedule one-on-one meetings where the direct report sets the agenda. These meetings don’t use up a lot of work time—just twenty to thirty minutes every other week. There’s no better way to show someone you care about them as a person than to set aside time to chat about anything they wish. It’s a great opportunity for both manager and direct report to speak openly with one another without interference or judgment. This leads to a trusting relationship that generates respect, loyalty, and accountability on both sides.

And don’t forget to take time to celebrate people’s talents, skills, and successes. Celebration doesn’t have to mean a big, expensive party. It can be as small as taking one person aside and praising them for their input at a meeting. It can be as quiet as sending someone a gift card in appreciation for the role they played on a special team. Or it can be as grand as allowing everyone in the department to stop working two hours early on a Friday afternoon. Celebration lets people know they are doing things right. It builds morale and camaraderie. And—let’s face it—it’s fun!

So take time to let your people know you’re glad they are with you. You see their gifts and also their potential. You want them to win. And you’re there to help them achieve their goals. Take time to build those meaningful connections. It’s the best investment you’ll ever make.

SLII®: Powering Inspired Leaders

One of the things we’ve learned in recent weeks is that when change disrupts business as usual, effective leadership is more important than ever. Businesses today must be nimble and responsive, able to apply creative solutions to unprecedented problems. But an organization can only be as agile and innovative as the people who lead it. That’s why it’s critical to empower inspired leaders.

Can inspired leaders be developed? Absolutely! SLII®—the most widely used leadership training program in the world—creates caring, skillful managers who build meaningful connections with coworkers to unleash their potential and create exponential impact.

Now, “exponential” is not a word I would normally use, but it perfectly describes the multiplying power of SLII®. When one manager develops these proven leadership skills, their positive impact can affect the entire organization.

People Must Be a Priority

The days of rigid management styles are over. Especially now, when it’s imperative to tap every resource an organization has, “we” leadership rather than “me” leadership is the formula for success. Our research shows that when leaders sincerely care about the people who work in their organizations and see them as a top priority, strong financials follow.

Leaders trained in SLII® know that meaningful relationships are built through authentic conversations. Whether it’s talking with a new hire about getting a job done or serving as a sounding board for a highly experienced employee, SLII® leaders drive performance and unleash talent. Skilled in the art and science of having conversations targeted to people’s development level, SLII® leaders understand what inspires their team members. They care about their growth. They see their promise. They’re there for them, no matter the situation.

The Bottom-Line Benefits of Good Leadership

Inspired leaders trained in SLII® create business environments that encourage diverse ideas, brilliant solutions, and above all, an engaged workforce. When people feel valued, they bring their all to the job. They’re committed, and that makes the difference between an organization that thrives and one that doesn’t.

Sometimes this commitment shows up as cost savings. In 2018 a couple of inspired BMW employees figured out how to increase the efficiency of the central electronic control unit in every vehicle, saving the company about $42 million in the very first year.

Sometimes this commitment shows up as the brainstorming of revenue generating ideas. For example, one of Amazon’s most popular site features—Prime Now—was created by an inspired employee.

You can always tell an organization that powers inspired leaders. These are places where employees shine, putting the whole company in a positive light. I’m thinking about the fabulous employee at a ShopRight supermarket in New Jersey who delighted customers by singing the old Police song, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” This made customers smile but more importantly, reminded them about social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Helping businesses to thrive—not just survive—is why we’re so passionate about what we do at The Ken Blanchard Companies. It’s a joy to watch SLII® leaders throughout an organization build meaningful connections that drive great results and make the world a brighter place.

5 Strategies for Leading Through The Uncertainty Of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a testing ground for leaders around the world. Leadership is always important, but especially during times of crisis. When each day brings new challenges, the choices leaders make can have a tremendous impact on outcomes, positive or negative.

It is normal for people to lose focus during a crisis; uncertainty tends to undermine people’s motivation and morale. The leader’s job is to remind people of the long-term vision; to give them hope and the promise of a better—or at least back-to-normal—tomorrow.

As we move through this global pandemic, now is a good time to review and respond wisely to the five stages of concern people have during periods of change:

  1. Information concerns – In the absence of clear, factual communication, people tend to create their own information. Rumors abound and create confusion. That is why it’s so important to take charge of the conversation. People want to know whatever you know, even if it’s no different than what you knew yesterday. They want to know what is changing and why.

Response: Communicate verified facts early and often. Provide clear direction. Even if there’s no change in the status quo, keep communicating.

  1. Personal concerns – People wonder how change will affect them. If you don’t permit people to express their feelings about what’s happening, these feelings will persist. Yet if you allow people to deal with what is bothering them, in the very process of grappling with their feelings, their anxiety often goes away. “How will this change impact me personally?” is the question foremost in people’s minds.

Response: Keep two-way communication lines open so that people can talk about their concerns.

  1. Implementation concerns – At this stage people want to know how to perform in the face of the change. What information is needed? What are the tools, plans, and strategies for the immediate future? Have enough resources been allocated?

Response: Involve people in finding ways forward. Since they’re the ones who will be implementing any new plans and strategies, their insights will be crucial, and you’ll need their buy-in to succeed.

  1. Impact concerns – Once people’s anxiety about the first three stages are handled, they begin to wonder about the impact their efforts are having. Are things getting better? Are the strategies working? Are we going to be able to sustain this effort? Leaders can keep people engaged and motivated if they provide encouragement at this stage.

Response: Focus on the positive impact of people’s efforts and recognize their successes.

  1. Refinement concerns – At this stage time has passed and people have had a chance to see what is and isn’t working. Their concerns now focus on improving systems and processes. What have we learned that we can leverage? How can we do this better or faster?

Response: Now is not the time for leaders to drop the ball! Continue to practice the leadership strategies outlined in the five stages of concern above.

Good leadership not only can reduce the negative impact of a crisis, it also can make an organization stronger. For example, during the business slow-down after 9/11, the leadership team of our company resisted the kneejerk response to lay people off. Instead, everyone earning above a certain threshold took salary cuts. We convened a special meeting where we invited the entire staff to brainstorm measures the company could take to maximize income and cut costs. Not only did the company make it through the crisis, it thrived. When business started picking up again, we were still fully staffed. This gave us a business advantage, since we didn’t have to spend time hiring and training new people when the economy recovered.

There is no better time to lead at a higher level. Remember, our job as leaders is to serve, not to be served. Let’s start by serving our people and responding to their concerns, because they are our number one customer. Together, we’ll get through this.

Are You an Effective Collaborator?

This week is our company’s Channel Partner Conference here in town. What’s a channel partner, you ask? It’s someone who owns their own company and sells our training programs to organizations with 2500 people or less. This conference is a beautiful example of collaboration between our people and these good folks. We work together to help each other win.

A few years ago, I wrote a book with Eunice Parisi-Carew and Jane Ripley called Collaboration Begins with You: Be a Silo Buster. We wanted to show people how they can break down silos within their organization and work together to achieve successful results. We created an acronym we call the UNITE model. The letters stand for five elements everyone in an organization needs to put into action to create and sustain a collaborative culture:

  • Utilize differences;
  • Nurture safety and trust;
  • Involve others in crafting a clear purpose, values, and goals;
  • Talk openly; and
  • Empower yourself and others

How would you rank yourself as a collaborative leader or worker? Below is a list of questions, sorted by each category in the UNITE model, that you can ask yourself to assess your strengths and weaknesses regarding collaboration. Answer Yes or No to each question and keep track of your answers.

Utilize Differences

  1. Do you believe everyone has something to contribute?
  2. Do you ensure everyone in your group is heard?
  3. Do you actively seek different points of view?
  4. Do you encourage debate about ideas?
  5. Do you feel comfortable facilitating conflict

Nurture Safety and Trust

  1. Do I encourage people to speak their mind?
  2. Do I consider all ideas before decisions are made?
  3. Do I share knowledge freely?
  4. Do I view mistakes as learning opportunities?
  5. Am I clear with others about what I expect?

Involve Others in Crafting a Clear Purpose, Values, and Goals

  1. Is my team committed to a shared purpose?
  2. Do I know the purpose of our project and why it is important?
  3. Do I hold myself and others accountable for adhering to our values?
  4. Do I check decisions against our stated values?
  5. Do I hold myself and others accountable for project outcomes?

Talk Openly

  1. Do others consider me a good listener?
  2. Do I share information about myself with my teammates?
  3. Do I seek information and ask questions?
  4. Do I give constructive feedback—and am I open to receiving feedback?
  5. Do I encourage people to network with others?

Empower Yourself and Others

  1. Do I continually work to develop my competence?
  2. Do I feel empowered to give my opinions during idea sessions, even if I disagree?
  3. Do I actively build and share my network with others?
  4. Do I share my skills and knowledge with other departments?
  5. Do I believe my work is important to the organization?

Now give yourself one point for every Yes answer.

A score of 21 to 25  is outstanding! Keep up the good work!

A score of 17 to 20 is very good. You are definitely on the right track.

A score of 14 to 16 is average. Keep working at it.

A score of 13 or less is poor. Pay attention—there is lots of room for improvement.

In which area did you score the most Yes answers? In which area did you score the least? What actions can you take to improve your skills or attitudes? Did your results surprise you? If so, how?

Remember: None of us is as smart as all of us—and collaboration really does begin with you. Regardless of your role, you can make a difference in helping create a culture of collaboration within your organization. Collaboration is a wonderful thing to see—and even better when you are part of the experience!