One of the most valuable skills that business leaders can develop is active listening. While most leaders hear perfectly well, not all of them truly listen, and this communication failure can lead to serious problems down the road. Learning how to listen sets a good example for employees while also affirming that their opinions and thoughts are valued and respected.
Essentially, active listening is paying full attention to what another person is saying, without trying to formulate a response while he or she is still talking. Active listeners engage with speakers to make sure that they are getting the right message, which may involve paraphrasing or asking questions for clarification. Through active listening, leaders can gain valuable information and express that they care about what the speaker has to say. Some tips to keep in mind while practicing active listening include:
Learn how to control inner dialogue.
Because leaders often have to attend to several matters at once, their minds can become a jumble of thoughts. This cacophony becomes problematic when trying to listen to someone else, since it can steal attention from the speaker’s words. Before engaging in a conversation, business leaders should attend to anything that is distracting them and give themselves time to clear their mind. Often, controlling one’s inner dialogue means setting aside time for daily reflection. This time investment may seem like one more thing to add to a lengthy to-do list, but it can actually improve a leader’s efficiency and free up time throughout the day that was previously spent organizing thoughts. Moreover, this time investment helps business leaders listen to their employees and colleagues with fewer internal distractions.
Pay close attention to body language.
Active listening involves paying attention to one’s personal body language and that of the speaker. From a personal perspective, leaders can show that they are interested and engaged by facing the speaker and maintaining an open stance. Crossed legs and/or arms can suggest an unwillingness to communicate. In addition, eye contact is important. At the same time, leaders need to notice the nonverbal cues given by speakers. These clues can convey a person’s true thoughts and feelings. For example, if an employee is constantly fidgeting during a conversation, the leader may ask if something is making him or her uncomfortable, which could open up a whole new, and more important, topic of conversation. When leaders fail to pay attention to people’s body language, they miss critical parts of the communication process.
Avoid the impulse to formulate a response.
Often, business leaders feel like they always need to be “on,” even when they are in a one-on-one conversation with an employee. Because of this, leaders may begin formulating a response before the other person has finished speaking, so that they can give a reply immediately. However, every second spent thinking about how to respond to someone is a second not spent listening to them. Leaders need to approach listening mindfully and ensure that they continue to hear out everything the speaker is saying. Then, once the speaker has finished, leaders can take the time necessary to formulate a response. This extra time will not frustrate the speaker, but instead signal that he or she is worth the time for a thoughtful response. Sometimes, an immediate response can come across as dismissive.
Make an effort to understand motivation.
One of the hallmarks of good leadership is recognizing the needs of others and taking them seriously. This imperative is extremely important in active listening, too. When listening actively, leaders make others a priority and provide the time and space to hear them out without distractions. Rather than thinking about the conversation as something else to check off a list or approaching it from a problem-solving perspective, leaders should think critically about why the speaker has brought up the topic at this time. By thinking about the speaker’s motivation, leaders can gain a better sense of who that individual is. Open-ended questions can also help leaders get an even better idea of the reasoning behind what someone is saying. Taking the time to invest in another person like this helps uncover his or her unique strengths and perspectives, which in turn helps leaders guide and lead them more effectively.
Check for understanding in a variety of ways.
The goal of active listening is to understand the speaker’s message fully. Depending on the skills of the speaker, this may or may not have happened during the conversation. Leaders should always paraphrase what they think the speaker has said, to ensure they have an accurate impression of what the person was trying to communicate. In addition, leaders should check in with occasional questions to make sure they understand all points. However, it’s important to avoid interrupting the speaker with questions or attempts to paraphrase. Instead, these verifications should be left until the end of the conversation, or when there’s a natural pause.