“There’s a huge difference between the opportunity to ‘have your say’ and the opportunity to be heard. The good-to-great leaders understand this distinction, creating a culture wherein people had a tremendous opportunity to be heard and, ultimately, for the truth to be heard,” Jim Collins writes, stressing the importance of listening as a leader in his best-seller Good to Great.
Listening is a skill we all want to see in our leaders. However, examples of leaders showcasing it are few and far between.
Some leaders like Steve Mogford, the CEO of United Utilities, stand out though. For instance, Mogford started the “CEO Challenge,” where employees can submit their innovative ideas for solving business problems. As he describes, “New ideas can come from many sources, which is why we encourage it at all levels from our annual CEO Challenge before implementation on a larger scale.”
A leader with listening skills makes all the difference at companies. For example, with this leadership trait, they create good relationships with employees, inspire more brand loyalty, encourage further employee engagement and innovation, and fulfill customers’ needs better.
Sadly, too few leaders seem to possess listening skills. A LinkedIn survey of 14,000 workers found that only 8 percent considered their leaders great listeners and communicators. Today’s executives and managers need to up their game if they want to develop this skill.
In this article, discover:
- Why leaders need to develop their listening skills
- The signs that you’re a good or bad listener
- Examples of how you can get better
What is Listening?
Listening is a soft skill that goes beyond simply hearing the sounds around you. Practically anyone can hear. It takes a different skill to actually listen. Listening means not only hearing a sound but trying to analyze its meaning. To put it another way, hearing is a sense, while listening is a skill. Listening affects the brain differently from hearing as it engages distinct parts of the mind and requires a person’s full attention.
Why Do Leaders Need Listening Skills?
- Builds strong relationships. Whether you work mostly with employees or customers, listening is how you build strong and vibrant relationships with other people.
- Helps you become a flexible leader. By listening to other people, you learn the type of leadership style you need to adopt to be able to motivate or inspire someone.
- Makes customers happier. We’ve all been in situations where it feels like the customer service representative wasn’t listening to our concerns. Using the soft skill of listening means understanding a customer’s problems and desiring to solve them. This leads to improved customer satisfaction.
- Creates a culture of listening. When employees see you use your listening skills, they’ll feel inspired to communicate with each other. It creates more open communication, effectively becoming a conflict management strategy.
- Leads to better choices. Listening can produce a safer work environment. You avoid potential mistakes and problems since you’re listening to concerns as they pop up. Listening also helps you make more informed decisions.
- Generates more empathy. Being a good listener means wanting to understand where people are coming from. You imagine yourself in their shoes before you react to what they say. This creates an atmosphere of empathy for your team.
All of these benefits lead to a positive impact on a business. When leaders show they have excellent communication skills, people want to work for a company known for its welcoming culture. As organizations develop this service-oriented attitude, they’ll see more innovative products and services along with high ratings among employees and customers.
Signs You’re a Good Listener vs. a Bad Listener
- People want to talk to you about their problems.
- You’re known as being openminded.
- Setting aside time to listen to people isn’t an issue.
- You don’t have an agenda in mind when you have a conversation.
- Interruptions don’t happen when the other person is talking.
- First impressions are difficult for you to let go of.
- Your responses lack thought and tact.
- You often jump to conclusions.
- Your reality doesn’t allow for another perspective.
- You’re too focused on a self-centered worldview.
- More often than not, you want to talk about yourself.
Examples of How to Be a Great Listener
1. Practice Active Listening
A type of listening all leaders should try is active listening. This is a type of listening that creates engagement for both sides. Active listeners communicate understanding and show value for the other side’s opinion. By actively listening, you can solve conflicts, show greater trust, and improve employee satisfaction.
Example: Dave practices active listening when discussing a recurring issue with Stacey. As she speaks, he makes eye contact and nods his head to show he understands her perspective. Additionally, Dave explains back to her what he’s hearing Stacey say. This way, nothing gets lost in translation as they collaborate together to prevent the problem from occurring again.
2. Notice and Display Nonverbal Cues
Communication is key to understanding each other, but much of listening involves noticing what isn’t being said. Pay attention to the other person’s nonverbal cues. Are they making eye contact? What are they doing with their hands? Simply paying attention to a person’s body language and facial expressions can reveal more about their thoughts and feelings.
Example: During a performance review, Natalie notices Steven won’t make eye contact, even though he says everything’s fine. Sensing this might signify he’s reluctant to talk about a problem, Natalie asks him how he felt about missing his sales goal for the quarter. This gives Steven an opportunity to discuss his feelings and open up about the issue. It is also a way for Natalie to get more information about the problem so she can help solve it.
3. Ask Helpful Questions
Ensure you understand the meaning behind a conversation by asking good questions. This helps you get to the deeper issues surrounding the matter. It also serves to show how well you’re listening to the other party.
Example: While discussing the latest project, Gary asks Jonathan clarifying questions to remove any remaining confusion. For instance, he asks Jonathan to tell him more about the purpose of the project and how it will affect his team’s workload. With these questions, implementation becomes smoother since Gary knows what he needs to prepare his direct reports for. It also gives him an opportunity to discuss what capabilities his team has, which might cause timelines to shift. Overall, it helps both Gary and Jonathan establish clear expectations, preventing problems from occurring in the future.
4. Show You Care
One of the listening skills all leaders should develop is empathy. Show that you care about what the other person is saying. Offer your support. Encourage them to reach their goals, and be there for them when things get difficult. Simply taking the time to listen may be enough, but don’t be afraid to provide further resources to help others out.
Example: Jessica nods while Greg talks about his recent health problems. In response, she offers to give him extra time off so he can recover.
5. Repeat to Clarify
At the end of every important conversation, leaders can demonstrate their listening skills by repeating the most crucial points. This shows you listened and understood. It also allows others to clarify anything missed in the discussion. After this, you can go over the action steps everyone should take next.
Example: Alan finishes the conversation with his marketing leaders by going over each point they brought up along with possible solutions to their problems. He gives them one last chance to ask questions before concluding the meeting.
Good Listening Produces Great Leaders
Just because someone may be a bad listener doesn’t mean they can’t become better. For many bad listeners, they’ve likely never learned how to listen in the first place. However, listening is a skill you can practice and get better at, so don’t give up on improving yourself.
When you learn to listen as a leader, you also produce more good listeners. You teach people what it means to listen so they can implement listening skills in their daily lives and improve team leadership. Multiplying leaders in this way starts with focusing on basic skills like listening. Focus on teaching your team one small skill a week, and soon you’ll have leaders at every level.
For further help with communication, check out the article The Value of Open Communication in the Workplace.