True leaders work diligently and sincerely to be the best listeners in their organization. It is no small feat because not all have “great listening skills” coming on as second nature. Much like other top leadership skills we acquire, active listening is developed and constantly honed.
The Big 6: An Active Listening Skill Set
What is the impetus for a leader to develop enhanced listening skills? Is it merely to check off an item on a list of skills? Is it to come off on the surface as sympathetic? Is it to create supportive and loyal followers? To get a team on your side? Is it to placate others? If you make an effort to actively listen to others, is that a favor they owe you? What do you expect of them in exchange? Should you?
I am both a leader and a follower. In my experience, leaders who become experts at active listening have the ability to sift through the clutter of extraneous information and derive key insights. That enables them. More importantly, they make others feel great about themselves, lifting them up. For followers, experiencing active listening from their leader is a gift highly valued. Feeling listened to and not just heard, is empowering.
What is a good indicator of having successfully developed active listening skills? I venture that it is when you find yourself making very little, to no effort, to do so. You simply ask: “Tell me what’s on your mind” and just like that, your ears, eyes, mind, and heart all open up to receive, unfiltered, the thoughts of another.
Getting to this point is not easy. If your interest is in developing above average listening skills, then perhaps like me, you have consumed dozens of well researched and well-meaning articles and books on the subject and attended a number of trainings. Whether it’s for the purpose of becoming a really admirable and effective leader, a more considerate partner, a more empathetic teacher, a better friend, etc., you have read it, heard it, digested and processed the advice, and have actually started putting it into practice. Yet somehow, you still occasionally find yourself squirming in your chair, sitting on your hands, maintaining the eye contact, as you agonizingly wait for that pause from the other party so you can finally get YOUR point across. Unfortunately, if the party doing the talking is wrapped up talking about themselves, that time might not come.
Listening intently and quietly can backfire, too, if you fail to exhibit signs of active listening. Not too long ago, fresh from reading tips on how to be good at listening, I consciously held off talking much or joining the fray of back-and-forth reactions in one small group meeting. I thought, as I had nothing new or different to add, that I will simply let others speak. I sat quietly and enjoyed processing everyone’s inputs. Alas, my managers interpreted the silence as inability to contribute thoughts or worse, non-interest.
7 Signs Someone’s Not Listening to You
On the other end of the listening line is the talking part. Oftentimes, most of us do not hear ourselves speaking endlessly. Mark Goulson offers helpful information on the why of this behavior and how to avoid overextending our listening welcome in his Harvard Business Review article: “How to Know If You Talk Too Much”. He attributes talking too much to getting carried away with the good feeling we associate with being listened to.
The sage on stage. In university, I belonged to a course where the instructor would start a monologue on the topic du jour, from beginning to halfway through the class. She would share her relevant experiences to expound on the point with examples but often ended up wandering down memory lane. She often succeeded not in holding our attention but in losing it. Rambling on and going off on tangents, then forgetting her original point. Her “me, me, me” examples also came across as boasting. Sometimes, she would ask a question but when a student attempts to participate, the dismissal was subtle yet swift.
Interestingly, the psychology of insisting on being heard, comes from not being heard: “How to Be a Good Listener”, The Book of Life website. It does appear that talking too much and the inability to listen are correlated. It strikes me that the real reason why we find it difficult to listen is because of our need to be heard first. Even when we decide to develop above average listening skills, it typically comes from a selfish motive.
Listening: It’s Not About You.
I once worked for a senior executive who found it short of insulting when points are recapped after a meeting in the spirit of clarification. Multinational ad agency training has taught me to end each meeting with a recap, especially as the understanding and agreements can lead to costly next steps. Summarizing what I heard, and asking for validation or clarification of my understanding, helped in ensuring minimal miscommunication to none. The same work style served me well in most client-side environments, too. As a marketing professional, I often gather thoughts and directions from higher management relative to project development. Recapping what a higher level executive shares with me during briefings is simply best practice. Imagine my surprise when in one of our meetings, doing just that with this executive, I was coldly interrupted with: “I know what I said”. It turns out, he preferred the conversation to be over when he was done speaking. Any recap would have to be in writing. So clearly, an adjustment in my work style had to be made not primarily because he is the higher up, but because “listening” includes tuning in to the style of the other person. I realized getting good at active listening is not just about becoming a better version of me. More importantly, it is about the other parties knowing they were heard.
The outstanding author, leader and speaker Stephen Covey, who gave the world “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, so wisely advocated “Habit 5: Seek first to understand before being understood”. The key? Listen first. To acknowledge the other person’s thoughts, opinion, perspective and position, before we push ours. This is not a technique that is outwardly rehearsed. It is a true action recommendation. It needs to be authentic.
The struggle is real. I was in a team led by a very talented and dynamo colleague who, possibly seven out of ten times, generates the best ideas around. So earnest is he to move things forward along his line of thinking that he unknowingly manifests impatience with others’ points-of-view and “thinking out loud”. While he asks for suggestions, his micro-messages were loudly and clearly saying: “unless you agree with my original thought, I do not have to listen to you”. He would impatiently interrupt those speaking, admonishing them to cut to the chase. Employee sentiment against this behavior grew and he was informed of it. Naturally, awareness made him express a willingness to change. For the first few times, it seemed to work. Until one day, an employee was trying so hard to explain a point and getting flustered. That was when he said: “I have sat here for x minutes, doing my best to listen to you. I have done my share. Now it’s your turn to listen to me”. And just like that, all seemed lost. What my colleague didn’t realize is that it has always been his turn. As a manager, his followers were at a default to listen to him. First. Developing his ability to listen, that was not really about him. It was about that flustered employee who was straining to be heard.