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Listening is a Verb

Employees require more feedback. Constituent demands are greater. Organizations are adapting to new versions of normal. Employees are tackling additional responsibilities. Also, water is wet.

Although the circumstances of what is keeping us busy and how we work may change, the juggling of too many priorities amongst not enough people is nothing new.

A friend who recently started a mid-level management role recently lamented that fact. He noted that important strategic initiatives, those he planned to focus on over the next 60 days, have been pushed aside due to day-to-day tactical needs. When I suggested that there might be a lack of focus within his organization, he wholeheartedly agreed and added, “Part of the problem is no one really listens to each other here. We talk at each other and then run back to our world. It’s frustrating.”

My friend and fellow executive coach Richard Smith and I have had numerous conversations about the silent killer that plagues many organizations. A lack of true listening ability among leaders.

Leaders should have a bias toward action. But without truly listening to customers and partners, to employees and colleagues, how can you take the most effective action?

Some leaders believe that their internal thought processes alone are sufficient to make decisions about next steps. But isolation caused by siloed organizational structures leaves leaders without context and connection. As Richard noted in his mid-year checkup for leaders, listening is a critical practice that reaps many rewards. But it’s not as easy as mm-hmming as you walk past a colleague or reach for the “end” button on the video call.

Leaders should have a bias toward action. But without truly listening to customers and partners, to employees and colleagues, how can you take the most effective action?

Listening is a verb. It takes skill and focus. And it is an essential facet of emotional intelligence competencies that leaders need to succeed and rise higher. It’s also what future managers need to experience so they understand how to help release the talent of those around them.

As executive coaches, Richard and I have both experienced the need to see our clients engage far more powerfully as the listener, rather than the talker. Leaders at any organizational level can benefit from some of the advice we’ve provided clients to bolster their listening skills:

Double down on questions.

A very strong question will yield better results than sharing your strongest opinion. Give it a try. A statement allows for only agreement or, if you have achieved an atmosphere of candor and trust, perhaps disagreement. In your next few meetings, watch what happens when you or a colleague poses a great question. Linda Hill, author and professor at Harvard Business School, shares this, “Your leadership depends on how people experience themselves when they are with you.” When you ask a meaningful question, you open the door to dialogue and insights, and help those around you gain context and experience themselves as contributors.

Don’t try to anticipate responses. Focus on hearing what is being said, and what is not being said. While many leaders feel the need to respond quickly and be seen as proactive in the moment, what might you miss when you’re just preparing your next response? The next time you are in a group meeting or a one-on-one discussion, try to allow the conversation to flow and respond only after questions are asked or issues presented.

When you ask a meaningful question, you open the door to dialogue and insights, and help those around you gain context and experience themselves as contributors.

Quiet potential distractions. Listening requires more than your ears. Put aside the phone or close those additional browser windows so your attention doesn’t wander.  You can’t be truly present for any conversation if you’re also sending a text. Give your full attention to that person or people and that moment.

Question your own assumptions. Sometimes when leaders enter a conversation about an issue, they enter with their minds made up about a course of action. But by listening to others, asking questions and staying open to alternative viewpoints, you can glean information that you may have otherwise missed.

Consider the needs of your audience before you enter a meeting. A client began to take just 20 minutes prior to each team meeting to plan how he wished to focus on the needs of each person in the group. He experienced significant positive outcomes from these meetings that had been challenging previously. By doing advance work, he positioned himself as a powerful listener and facilitator, focused on giving his direct reports the time and attention they need. A meeting participant described a sense of “experiencing his leadership.”.

Observe cadence and body language. Some people speak quickly, while others speak in a slow, measured cadence. Some people don’t mind crosstalk and subject changes, while others may have difficulty holding on to their train of thought through interruptions. When we actively listen, we have to be mindful of cadence to keep conversation on track. As well, we need to identify and interpret body language. Sometimes people need a pause after speaking to process. Non-verbal cues offer powerful insights that can allow you to gain a deeper understanding of what is really being said. Be patient with the process of communication and allow employees the time and space to express themselves in the way they feel most comfortable. Equally important: pay attention to those in meetings who have little or nothing to say. They may need a gentle prompt or invitation to contribute, or there may be factors that prevent them from thinking their voice should be heard. It’s your job to find out and remedy any blocks to effective communication.

Show that you are paying attention. Give cues that show your level of engagement, and make sure they are genuine. Most of us can sniff out mock body language, so omit theatrics. Nod, lean in, maintain eye contact when appropriate. These non-verbal cues show the person speaking that you are following what they’re saying with interest.

Listen with empathy. Try to understand not just what is being said, but also why and how. Is there anger? Frustration? Excitement? You may not always agree with someone else’s observations but demonstrating empathy for their experience helps them feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with you. This, in turn, leads to stronger connections that benefit the working relationship.

The surest way to continue to be the recipient of honest feedback, fresh ideas, and collaborative candor is to show that you value it.

Translate what is being said to demonstrate understanding. Sometimes our biases enter the picture when we are listening, and we misunderstand meaning. To ensure this doesn’t happen, restate what you have heard. This allows the speaker to verify and clarify. Ask open-ended questions to get more descriptive answers. By the end of a dialogue, make sure that you truly heard what was being said, not what you thought was being said.

Value the dialogue. Thank the person who spoke to you for sharing their thoughts. Demonstrate respect by concluding a dialogue with what you will do with the information shared. Then do it. The surest way to continue to be the recipient of honest feedback, fresh ideas, and collaborative candor is to show that you value it.

Listen some more. While it may be challenging at first, building your listening skills should be a rewarding practice, in many ways. Being heard is a timeless and universal need for everyone. Richard and I would argue that the need to be heard is even greater now as organizations tangle with less predictable business cycles, greater demands for transparency, and new ways of working.

Speaking less and listening more – actively and empathetically – is a formula for greater success, both for individual leaders, and the organizations they seek to improve.

By Amy Balog, Founder, ConnextionPoint Services

Richard Smith, Managing Partner, Benton + Bradford Consulting