"The key to learning is listening. It was great to talk to CEO World about this important topic. I confess I'm still learning to apply my own advice here, so I'd better listen up!"
Everyone knows that great leaders are great listeners. But as senior level professionals, our opportunity to listen diminishes as we are the people in the room that introduce new ideas, present plans, answer questions. When we do listen, many of us are guilty of preparing our response, thinking about the implications, or predicting what the speaker will say next, instead of truly listening.
How can we tap into the thoughts from our staff? Here are ten ways that you (and I) can listen more.
1. Stop talking.
When someone is speaking to you, let them finish their entire thought before responding. It sounds simple, but it is harder in practice. Even when we agree, we often interrupt to show we understand the point by talking over the speaker before they have finished their thought. In disagreements, we might talk over the person to communicate our counter viewpoint. But when you stop talking and better yet, pause before you respond, you will likely hear something in that last trailing sentiment that you might not have heard if you had interrupted to rush your reply.
2. Advocate for the person speaking.
As you master the skill of refraining from interrupting, you will notice how often others interrupt. Be an advocate for the person speaking – not necessarily agreeing with their position but asking others to let them finish their statement.
3. Don’t multitask.
In our fast-paced society, multi-tasking is celebrated. But to truly listen, the person speaking deserves our full attention. Be fully present throughout the conversation by taking notes and asking follow up questions as needed. By focusing on their words instead of using the time for other responsibilities, we can be more productive in that moment, gaining more clarity for that topic and potentially save time in the future by eliminating misinterpretation.
4. Let someone else lead the conversation.
As senior level professionals, we are inclined to determine the topic, set the agenda and carry the conversation. But when we let someone else lead, whether it be a meeting, group discussion or 1:1, we can empower others voices to be heard while giving ourselves an opportunity to stop, listen and reflect. By being fully present in the moment with the person speaking or leading the conversation you communicate respect and encourage leadership amongst your team members.
5. Ask open ended questions.
When my kids started in school, I would ask them about their day and get brisk “it was fine” or “good” answers. I asked a friend how he got his teenagers to share details of their day and he recommended starting the daily conversation with a story starter, such as “I dropped you off at school, then what happened?” With a storytelling prompt, I found that it was easier for the kids to recall details about their teacher, friends, lessons and activities. In business, this technique works well as you lead people through a timeline, putting them in the moment and likely down a path you wouldn’t have heard if the question could be answered with one word.
6. Be open to old ideas.
As senior professionals, we’ve experienced many of the same situations repeatedly and original ideas and solutions are far and few between. When we hear an idea we’ve already proposed to colleagues or a solution have tried ourselves, we tend to stop listening, often interrupting the speaker with a statement “we already did that.” But if we take time to listen more, we can consider how the environment, products, and other variables have changed since our last attempt. If the context has changed, we might have a solution that could work again or for the first time. By listening more effectively, we can open ourselves to old ideas.
7. Repeat back what the person said.
Reflecting listening skills are a tried and true method for increasing understanding and empathy. By summarizing the speaker’s thoughts in their own words, you demonstrate that you are engaged and understand their statement. If there is a misinterpretation, summarizing gives the speaker an opportunity to clarify and continue the conversation knowing you are both on the same page and leading to a more productive outcome.
8. Create environments to listen.
One reason we might not hear from our team is we haven’t made the time to listen. Schedule meetings and secure a meeting place that allows for conversation. If there is a specific topic you want to learn about, share a few questions before the meeting, kick off with a reminder of those questions, then stop talking and start learning. Scheduling your undivided attention shows your commitment to listening to your employees.
If it’s not possible to meet individually, schedule small group meetings, regularly host open office hours, or make time at the end of a team meeting for open Q&A. Dedicating consistent time to listen to your team, shows that you value their opinions and want to learn from their areas of expertise.
9. Listen with your eyes.
A small child asked his mother if he could tell her a story while she was cooking. The mom responded “sure” but didn’t move her eyes from her cooking task. Moments later she looked down and asked why he wasn’t telling her the story and the boy responded “you weren’t listening with your eyes.”
Maintaining eye contact with the speaker demonstrates they have your full attention and allows you to pick up on their body language – their passion and excitement or their uneasiness about the topic. Listening with your eyes as well as your ears gives you clues to how the speaker is reacting to their own words and gives you greater insight.
10. Act on the conversation.
Perhaps the real value of listening more is the response it elicits. After the conversation, take time to think about the learnings – write down thoughts and any action items. Commit to following up with the person, even if you don’t have an immediate update – circling back to reference the conversation shows that you listened and have learned from what was shared.