Listen Up - A Critical Leadership Skill We Often Take For Granted

By Jessica Wishart

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Effective listening is a key attribute for leaders (and for people in general). If you are a manager, this skill Listen Up: A Key Leadership Skillcan help you unlock the keys to employee engagement and lead your team to increasingly superior performance. Yet, I find that it is something we frequently take for granted. Why do we take listening for granted?  Even though I have a Masters in counseling and spent two years studying and honing this particular skill, I still find myself falling into the familiar traps - nodding my head while my brain drifts off in another direction, interrupting with my own great idea, or pretending to listen while I’m really just formulating my brilliant response. As I said, listening is a skill, which is good and bad - this means that you can develop it and get better at it over time, and it also means that your listening skills can become rusty if you don’t practice them on a regular basis. So, whether you are a professional listener or just becoming aware of the need to work on this skill, we can all use a refresher from time to time, especially since there are few things more important to your ability to effectively relate to others both personally and professionally. 

Here are 6 basic listening tips:

  • Always allow the other person to finish speaking before responding.
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Use non-verbal cues such as smiling, nodding, and open and relaxed body language. Give the person speaking your full attention by turning toward them and maintaining appropriate eye contact.
  • Avoid multitasking while listening.
  • Avoid responding in a way that is about you - always validate what the other person has said first and ask permission to share your experiences or thoughts on the matter.
  • Show genuine interest in what the other person is saying. Be curious.

I’ve also compiled some concrete strategies from Stephen Covey for empathic listening and from Vital Smarts for “power-listening.” The tips above are table stakes for everyday conversations, and these skills are specifically beneficial for conversations that might be more difficult, more significant or more emotional. Using Effective listening strategies is a skill that every leader should work on to improve company productivity.

Listening tips for difficult or emotional conversations:

  • Begin with the end in mind, or start with a mutual purpose.
  • Consider the level of trust you have with the other person.
  • Clearly and directly state your intent.
  • If emotion is high, reflect the other person’s feelings (For example, "I see that you’re upset” or “I hear that you’re angry.”) 
  • Ask the other person to share his/her thoughts and feelings.
  • Restate what the person said in your own words (paraphrase) to ensure that you’ve understood what you’ve heard.
  • If your emotions are clouding your ability to listen well, take a step back. Ask the person for some time to cool off and schedule a time to finish the conversation later.

You might be thinking, “that sounds like a lot of work.” Yeah - actively and empathically listening is not an easy thing to do. And, it requires a lot of practice. Luckily, most of us have frequent opportunities to use these skills in our lives. I also recommend practicing them before you really need them (when you probably won’t be at your best).

Here are a few listening exercises from Fast Company that you can do to sharpen your skills:

  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine what the other person’s life might be like and what challenges they might face. Make an effort to not only hear the person but also to understand him or her.
  • Develop curiosity, an open mind, and a desire for continuous growth. “People who are naturally curious see conversations as learning opportunities.” If you approach the person thinking about what you can learn from the conversation, you’ll be more likely to engage in effective listening.
  • Practice active listening by pretending that you’ll be tested on what the person is saying after they finish speaking. This will help you focus on the speaker rather than on formulating your response. This also makes it easier to paraphrase a few key points back to the person so they know you were paying attention.

I hope these reminders are helpful as you interact with others in our increasingly polarized world. 

“When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.” - Stephen R. Covey

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Want more information on Team Accountability? Check out these additional resources:

The Power of Systems and People: Accountable Leaders and Teams

Listening Strategies

Take Our Team Accountability Assessment 

Team Accountability Begins with Personal Accountability

How top CEOs Close the Strategy Execution Gap

Building Team Accountability: Job Scorecards

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Growing Team Accountability in Your Organization

Quick Tips for Building Accountability

5 Steps to Having an Accountability Discussion [Video]

Learn more about accountable leaders and teams.

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Jessica Wishart


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images