Effective Listening For Leaders

How would you rate your listening out of 10? As coaches we spend much of our time listening and yet I know personally there is still room for improvement.

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At home with two boys and my husband there are frequent moments when quality listening is abandoned – in fact only Daisy our Labrador would score a 10! – and yet I’ve seen first hand how empathetic listening can make a massive difference.

In September both boys started at their secondary school -always a delicate time- and at the end of the first day one of them was in floods of tears about his school choice. Fortunately, I had been reading Stephen Covey’s book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and particularly the part about genuinely “seeking first to understand” the problem. Repeating back what he said and empathising with his awful day gradually helped him calm down and from this position he was able to find his own solution to the situation.

What I particularly remember was any statement I made that “it will get better” or suggestions of what he could do only made the situation worse because he did not feel I was truly listening to and empathising with his plight. I now have a post-it note with the words “seek first to understand” stuck to my office wall to remind me to be continuously curious and listen.

With organisations and individuals so fervently focused on the bottom line, it’s easy to ignore softer skills, such as listening well. Perhaps you think all this touchy-feely stuff is a waste of time or not for the office. I’d say “On the contrary”. A focus on listening can lead to more effective teamwork, higher productivity, fewer conflicts and errors, enhanced innovation and problem-solving, improved recruiting and retention, superior customer and stakeholder relations and more. As authors on leadership development have noted through the years, listening is not just a nice thing to do, it’s essential.

“Make the human element as important as the financial or the technical element,” wrote Covey. ” You save tremendous amounts of time, energy and money when you tap into the human resources of a business at every level. When you listen you learn.”

As long ago as 1966, Peter Drucker, author of The Effective Executive and numerous other books emphasised the importance of listening to both self and others as an essential step in bringing to light everyone’s role as contributors to the organisation’s overall success.

Likewise, studies in Emotional Intelligence (EI) over the past couple of decades have found that leaders actually infect the workplace ( for better or worse) with their attitudes and energy. To understand and influence these flows of emotion and motivational states, leaders need to be able to practice empathetic listening skills.

In their book Primal Leadership, authors Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee, describe how varying leadership styles rely on listening skills for their effectiveness.

Visionary Leaders listen to values held by individuals within the group, enabling them to explain their own goals for the organisation in a way that wins support.

Coaching Leaders listen one on one to employees, establish rapport and trust, and help employees help themselves in matters of performance and information gathering.

Affiliative Leaders listen for employees’ emotional needs and strive to honour and accommodate those needs in the workplace.

Democratic Leaders elicit ideas and participation by listening to everyone’s opinions and information.

In Seven Habits, Covey cites numerous examples of successful business deals and resolved workplace issues because of the importance and power of empathetic listening versus mechanical, perfunctory listening. He also acknowledges it takes time and practice to become adept at listening empathetically.

Listening, leadership

Here are some tips for sharpening your listening skills:

1) Develop your curiosity. This helps with Covey’s suggestion to “Seek first to understand”. Genuine curiosity is felt by others and helps to open up an employee’s, co-worker’s or even a family member’s speech and your listening.

2) Pay attention to your listening. Replay conversations you’ve had and assess whether you listened well.

3) Seek feedback. Ask colleagues, employees, bosses, clients/customers and stakeholders to assess your listening skills.

4) Work with a coach. Executive coaches can help you discover ways to listen better not only to those you work with, but also to yourself.

Listening better will reward you with an entirely new level of communication and problem-solving skills, for empathetic listening requires the ability to see multiple points of view in any given situation.

Over to you

What are your thoughts/observations about listening. Do you have any examples of good and poor listening practice? Leave your message in the comment box and share your experience with others.

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