How to listen better
18 November 2021
Like many aspects of effective leadership, listening well is a skill that you can learn, and it’s one that needs consistent practice. As a new leader, you’ll get plenty of chances to hone your skill because it’s a critical part of the job.
For all of us, talking is a way of thinking, it’s a way for us to develop our ideas, bond with our tribes, and try out our ideas in their context.
Leaders need to learn and practice how to listen, which increases productivity, engagement and creativity*.*
Most of us have heard these things about listening before, but it bears repeating. as a foundation to increasing listening skill:
- Provide or create a safe environment. This makes it easy for someone to speak freely, have ideas and to think. Privacy and the lack of a potentially judgmental audience helps.
- Put your screens away and silence alerts.
- Shut up. Seriously, give the other person space to speak.
Before anyone says a word, look inward for a minute. Not a navel-gazing-scented-candle-life-inventory, just check in, and ask yourself these things:
- Can I listen? Or at the very least, can I put aside my concerns about getting to soccer practice tonight or Mr. Big’s late-night email so that I can hear what this person has to say? If not, take care of what needs attention now and plan your talk later. You’re not going to hear what he or she has to say if you don’t.
- Can I be humble right now? Or do I already “know” what this person is going to say, what the right answer is, what he or she needs to do, and then be able check off “meeting with Employee X”? We all make mistakes, we all miss things from time to time – realize that listening well reduces your chances of both.
Types of listening
There are three things to keep in your awareness when you want to listen really well. Remember, don’t react, just be aware.
- Internal listening. There’s usually no need to immediately react to what you perceive inside as someone is talking, but it should be part of how you understand what’s happening. This is gut feeling and intuition.
- Targeted listening. This requires your attention to the words, the pauses, the silence and the body language. Again, this is not the time to react with “I notice that every time your supervisor comes up, you start to tap your foot.” Just notice.
- Situational listening. This is the ability to put what someone is saying in whatever context is appropriate – it could be a recent business change, what someone else has done, or the competitive environment.
In comparison to noticing or being aware, here are some things to do that will your skill at listening
- Even when you are 100% double-dog sure that you know exactly what the other person has said, put your understanding into your own words to see if he or she confirms that you understand. Be prepared to learn a lot with this technique – not only can you be wrong about what they meant or said, but ideas change as people talk, so expect, at the very least, some revision and clarification.
- Since talking is a part of thinking, help the other person think by asking questions about what he or she has said, to help them sharpen the meaning and direction.
- Practice detachment. Yes, this is someone working on your idea in your business, so you are going to have some strong feelings about a lot of the conversation. But having immediate, knee-jerk reactions will impede learning things you don’t already know – and there’s no way you know it all. If you find yourself about to interject with “I just need to . . . ” or “I don’t want to forget to tell you . . . ” you’re not listening. You’re just waiting to talk.
- In a business situation, it’s not a bad idea to have a notebook with you. Even if you’re the Big Boss, use something to write things down so that you can scribble a note while someone is talking so you don’t interrupt them.
- Additionally, make a practice of writing down what you understood, your impressions, your thoughts and questions after the conversation is over. Again, doing this does not have to involve complete sentences – it could be a few words in your notebook, a Google Doc with the employees name, or a Notion file. When working with employees, it’s a tremendous help to refer to what you’ve written down to be able to remember or pick up where you both left off, as well as increasing your understanding of how your business operates.
- Practice when it’s not critical. When someone is telling a story at lunch or some other causal environment, put some of these techniques to use to hone your skills.
- Plan to talk again. Try really hard to not use the ubiquitous jargon: follow-up, circle back, etc. Instead, be sincere. “Let’s talk again next Friday, if that works for you.” Sincerity makes connections possible.
As an old coach of mine used to say, “Practice does not make perfect, practice make permanent.” So practice listening well.
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