Want to be a great leader? Become a good listener first
Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson once said, "Great listeners are often terrific at uncovering and putting in place strategies and plans that have a big impact.”
Branson swears by the power of listening, stating that to “be a great leader, and to be successful, one must be a good listener.” The Virgin Group founder, in an interview, has said that a good place to begin if you want to stand out as a leader is by listening.
He’s not the only one who believes in the difference listening can make. Continued research reveals that listening shows your employees that you care about them as people and valuable assets are empathetic, and value their perspectives. Over time, this leads to relationships that are transparent and breed loyalty and inspires professional development and overall performance.
The ability to listen effectively is an essential component of leadership, but few among us know what it takes to become a better listener.
In an article in Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman argue that many of us think that we’re good listeners, but actually, we are far from it. Zenger and Folkman write that management advisers often encourage their clients to believe that effective listening simply means “to remain quiet, nod and ‘mm-hmm’ encouragingly, and then repeat back to the talker something like, ‘So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is… ‘,”
Recent research suggests that these behaviors fall far short of describing good listening skills. So what comprises good listeners?
Zenger and Folkman write, “Good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energise, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting.”
So how can you be a good and active listener? According to the Centre for Creative Leadership, a global leadership development organisation, active listening involves “paying attention, withholding judgment, reflecting, clarifying, summarizing and sharing”.
Here's how you can improve your listening skills to connect more effectively with employees and customers, and grow into a better leader.
Widen the scope of the conversation
CEO confidante and advisor Dr Mark Goulston, in his book Just, Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, suggests using conversation deepeners. “Say more about (whatever point the other person appears to be emphasizing),” he says. He also advises asking hypothetical questions that ensure the conversation does not end up in negativity and excuse making.
Try: “I understand, but what might we do that could make it possible?”
Recognise changes in tone & body language
Listening goes well beyond being quiet, giving someone your full attention or listening with one ear. A good listener keeps an eye on body language, mood, facial expressions and natural behavioral tendencies. Cues that will alert a good listener include changes in a person’s vocal pitch or crossing of arms.
Try: Observe baseline behavior. Is the person’s face, voice or body language tensing?
Try not to make any assumptions
If you think you know what's going on in someone's head and what they are going to tell you, you will also listen to what you want to hear. Psychology researcher John Stewart, author of U&Me: Communicating in Moments That Matter, says: “I don't think it's possible to not make any assumptions—it's just in everybody's hardwiring.” Cultivating a sense of genuine interest in the other person will create the right environment to listen.
Try: Check your assumptions out loud by asking, “Do you mean …” or “Are you're thinking that …” and let the person confirm/ correct.
Invite the speaker to fill in the blanks
Asking questions tends to put the person who’s speaking in a spot; most of the times, s/he will just clam up. So ensure that your part of the conversation is collaborative and invites responses. A poser like, “From your point of view, what positive thing must I do consistently and what negative thing should I stop doing completely to ensure that you don’t feel this way again?” is sure to lead to an in-depth conversation.
Try: Instead of saying, “Do you need my help in working towards your KRAs?” say, “Your KRAs are so-and-so…I could do this…”
Suspend judgment and don’t interrupt
Philip Tirpak, an instructor of communication studies at Northern Virginia Community College and president of the International Listening Association, which supports research and teaching on effective listening, says it’s vital to suspend your judgment. “Try really hard to let the other person talk…Take in the entire message, no interruptions allowed. Just listen,” he says.
Try: Stay in the moment, be focused on what the person is saying and be respectful of his/her feelings.