by: Sara Stibitz
Let’s face it: strong leaders tend to be characterized by their strong opinions, decisive action, and take-no-prisoners attitude. These are important traits, but it’s equally important for managers to stand down and listen up. Yet many leaders struggle to do this, in part because they’ve become more accustomed to speaking than listening. So, how can you develop this muscle? What are the barriers to good listening and how do you overcome them?
What the Experts Say
“As a leader, you need to have a strong voice and you need to know when it’s time to listen,” says Amy Jen Su, co-owner of Paravis Partners, an executive training and coaching firm. “A real conversation is a two-way dialogue; it requires both parts.” Christine Riordan, a leadership coach and president-elect of Adelphi University, agrees: “To be able to motivate and inspire others, you need to learn how to listen in both individual meetings and at the group level.” Fortunately, there are concrete ways to improve this important skill. Both Su and Riordan agree that the key is to start with the right mindset.
Make it a priority
First, you need the will. “You have to put it at the top of your list and acknowledge it’s a skill that’s important in your role as a leader. It has to be an active decision,” says Riordan. And to get over a need to talk or interject, adapt a mindset that will allow you to hear what’s being shared. If you believe you have all the answers, you simply have no reason to listen to others. Some of Su’s strongest clients build their listening skills by focusing on co-creation. “They recognize their own intellect, but they also recognize that their colleagues are equally smart and have something of value to say.”
It’s important to understand what’s holding you back. Are you a naturally good listener or do you have a more assertive personality? “There are personality traits that lend themselves to more empathic listening,” explains Riordan. “If you’re extroverted and conversational, you’re usually the one doing most of the talking.” Su had a client who was strong, passionate, and innovative. The downside to these fiery traits was that he was, as his subordinates and teammates described him, a “bull in a china shop” when it came to listening. To make matters worse, he was totally unaware of it. To break him of this bad habit, Su instructed him to use a “listening stick.” He started at home with his wife (who was thrilled at the prospect of his transformation into a better listener). Every time he wanted to talk during dinner, he had to wait for his wife to pass the listening stick. This physical cue finally helped him improve.
When assessing your own habits, also take your upbringing into account. “Some of us may have had early experiences in life where we were taught to be listeners instead of speakers, deferring to others. Some of us were taught that it was weak to listen, that we need to speak up,” says Su. Without first recognizing the influence of your early years, it’s difficult to change.
Get rid of distractions
When your attention is elsewhere during a conversation, you risk sending a message that the speaker and their message are unimportant. “We assume being on our iPhone or tablet isn’t a big deal, but when you speak to the people who work for those leaders, it has a really negative impact,” explains Su. And realistically, splitting your attention in such a way prevents you from getting the full picture; after all, you can’t pick up on facial expressions if your gaze is down at your phone. Demonstrate that you are listening by silencing phones, darkening your desktop monitor, and putting away anything that has the potential to distract you from the conversation at hand.
Look for nonverbal cues
Communication is much more than the words spoken. As Riordan says, “It’s not just content, it’s context, too.” People communicate in a myriad of ways and many of them are nonverbal. “In a conversation, people might say one thing but their face and body are saying the opposite.” Don’t let these cues pass by unaddressed. Acknowledge the information you’re receiving with questions like, “You seem excited about this, can you tell me more?” or “I get the sense that this upsets you, is there anything you need to share?”
Control your reactions
But don’t just focus on their body language. Control yours too. There are times this is challenging, either because we disagree strongly or because the news is upsetting. Riordan has seen leaders overreact to information, typically by snapping or very vocally disagreeing with the bearer before the message has been fully delivered–particularly when the news is bad. Regardless of the information you receive, it’s just as important to maintain control over your body language as it is to notice theirs. Practice sitting still and maintaining silence. Riordan advises us to avoid the rush to react or contradict.
Validate and verify
Leaders who are effective listeners validate and ask clarifying questions. “They don’t make assumptions. They drill down into the content of the conversation and verify what they’ve heard,” explains Riordan. They typically ask questions like, “Here’s what I thought you said, is that correct?” To be clear, Riordan stresses that you don’t have to agree with what’s being said. You can acknowledge and even express gratitude for the information, regardless of how you feel about it. Always close the talk with a summary of points heard and next steps.
Principles to Remember
- Take an honest look at both your good and bad habits
- Clear out all distractions that might draw your attention away from the person in front of you
- Ask clarifying questions and repeat back what you heard
- Assume you know all of the answers — allow for the possibility that others have valuable information to share
- Overlook nonverbal cues — they often reveal what a person is really thinking
- React emotionally to what is being said — acknowledge the information even if you don’t agree
Case Study #1: Create an environment conducive to listening
In 2004, Mike Colwell was promoted to manage a team of five directors, all of whom he’d worked with previously. He made it a priority to bring them together in one cohesive unit. One by one, they would each come in for a meeting with him to discuss the usual day-to-day news, and any other issues his managers wanted to bring to his attention. But it wasn’t long before he noticed things just weren’t flowing smoothly.
“I had five very strong leaders, but they all communicated differently and seemed to be giving me different information depending on whether they thought it was important or not,” says Mike. Worse yet, it seemed that they weren’t bringing small issues to his attention before they became big problems.
After some consideration, Mike realized there were two elements that contributed to the problem. First, he wasn’t creating an environment that was conducive to listening. When his managers came in, the various electronics on his desk created distractions and interruptions. His monitor was constantly alerting him to new messages or emails. “I realized I had to eliminate the distractions so I removed everything from my desktop, including my phone, and turned off my monitor,” says Colwell. “The dark monitor became a reminder for me; every time my eyes wandered to it, it was a cue to pay attention.”
Next, Mike decided to follow a specific agenda for each individual meeting. Every time they came in, his directors knew they would be expected to discuss all nine key elements of the business. Mike also told them that he didn’t want to do the talking; he wanted them to take the floor and give him the information freely. Not only did Mike’s tactics give his team the satisfaction of feeling heard and understood; the quality of information he received improved drastically.
Case Study #2: Don’t let personality traits get in the way
In 2006, Cameron Herold was proud of where his company, 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, was headed. The company, which was started in 1989, had $60 million in revenue and employed over 200 people at its head office. This was a promising position for the growing venture, but dissension soon broke out on the leadership team over how to grow. Their VP of Finance kept warning them not to spend in a few key ways. “He cautioned us about our growth, but we never really listened,” says Cameron, who was the COO at the time.
The problem? “Our VP was quiet. Almost meek,” he says. He was an introvert, and his manner of speaking was subservient. In contrast, Cameron and the CEO were both dominant and expressive. “Because he wasn’t right in our face about it, pushing us, we let his words go in one ear and out the other.” As a result, the VP’s warnings went unheeded and the company expanded too fast and ran out of cash. They faced significant financial trouble, which made it harder to weather the economic downturn in 2009.
Luckily the company survived, and Cameron was able to change his ways. The experience taught him to spot the disappointment in someone’s face when they speak yet don’t feel heard. “It’s important to look for it, to know if I’ve been truly listening to them or simply placating them,” he says. “And as a leadership team, we learned that we had to listen and pay attention to everyone, regardless of their communication style.”
About the Author
Sara Stibitz is a freelance writer and editor based in Des Moines, Iowa. In addition to the Harvard Business Review, she has written for the Des Moines Register, YogaIowa, Juice, Spoilage Literary Magazine, and other publications.
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