Listening is one of the most important success factors as we work our way up in a company and strive to improve as leaders.
Despite listening being critical to our success, effective listening is not taught to us in school and rare is the company that offers programs or even emphasizes how important being a good listener is.
Good listening is often referred to professionally as “active listening”, which I think is appropriate. It requires the following actions:
- Making comfortable eye contact
- Leaning in
- Smiling, if that will help the person speaking be at ease
- Providing affirmations such as nodding and saying words such as yes, okay and sure
- Asking purposeful questions, especially open-ended
- Quieting our mind
- A desire to understand what the person thinks and why, and how the person feels
- Withholding our judgment
What does it mean to quiet our mind? It means not thinking about what we are going to say, not just waiting so that we may have our turn to speak, and not jumping to conclusions about what the person should do. I certainly tended to be a "problem solver" as I listened, that is until I began to realize that it prevented me from becoming an effective listener. I particularly like the description "intentional listener", as I think it describes that we must want to listen and understand.
Intentional listening is a state of mind!
Intentional listening is work; it's a challenge and it takes practice—lots of practice. I have found self-observation practice helpful. When I intend to listen intently, I try to use silence to allow the person to continue to think and maybe continue with their thoughts. The silence allows us to think about what we've heard, and hopefully to understand the other person's reasoning and feelings. The use of silence is a key ingredient of intentional listening.
We must be open to understanding the other person without judging.
We must make the decision that we want to be an intentional listener and then commit to practicing—at work with clients and colleagues, in our personal lives with family and friends and even when we're out and about running errands. Shortly after our conversation, make notes on how we listened, how we feel and how we think the other person feels.
If we are perceived as good listeners, usually people will be willing to give us feedback and share their ideas. And we certainly want people to be eager to share their ideas! Remember, the best ideas are bottom up. The people closest to the action, those actually doing the work, are the ones who know best how to make improvements. We want them to feel that we sincerely want to know their ideas and that we are eager to listen, to understand, to respect them, that we won't jump to conclusions, and won't interrupt.
I grew up believing that we each have two ears and one mouth for a reason, that we should listen twice as much as we should speak! Actually, The Center for Creative Leadership offers the premise: We should follow an 80/20 rule, listening 80% of the time. Speaking of CCL, I recommend visiting their web site and ordering Active Listening: Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead. It's a 32-page guide with a wealth of information about listening skills that will help each of us enormously in our business, as leaders (and we all are) and in our personal lives.
Last tip: If in your office, make sure to turn away from your computer, ask questions to assure you understand, take notes, which I think shows respect, and participate in the conversation. Remember the 80/20 rule, i.e. listen 80% of the time. I promise that as we improve our intentional listening, we'll feel good about ourselves. When I have a conversation resolved to listen to appreciate and understand a person's thinking and reasoning, respecting the person, I feel as if I have been in service to the person. It feels good!
My invitation to each of us this week is that we decide that we want to become intentional listeners and that we practice often, ideally noting in a journal what we observed about ourselves and the other person in our conversations.