Improve Your Listening, Improve Your Leadership & Life

While many people use the weeks after the New Year to improve their physical fitness or drop a few pounds, I'd like to offer up an added area for improvement. I'm not suggesting you don’t improve your fitness but how about improving a skill that can have a profound impact on your personal and professional life? How about becoming a more engaged and active listener?

Since leadership in its most basic form is about getting other people to do what you need them to do, it follows that communicating—transmitting information so that it’s clearly understood—is an important skill. After all, if people can’t understand you, how will you ever let them know what you want?

If you take a moment to think about all the training you’ve received under the heading “communication”, you’ll see that it probably falls into four broad categories: 

  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Listening

You begin practicing speech early; many children are using words by the age of one. The heavy emphasis on reading, writing and speaking continues into school with learning objectives and performance standards existing across the K-12 continuum. Yet how many times have you been taught how to listen?

Of the four forms of communication, listening is the one in which most people receive the least amount of formal training. Yet for a leader, it is every bit as important as the others. It often comes first because you must listen and understand before you can decide what to say.

The most important objective of listening is to comprehend the speaker’s thoughts and internalize them, in other words, become an active listener. Throughout a conversation, active listeners should pay attention to what the other is trying to communicate.

Active listeners have a lot to focus on—a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues, the content of the message the speaker is trying to deliver, and the urgency and emotion of the speaker. Additionally, they must remain alert for common themes that recur with the speaker, as well as inconsistencies or topics they completely avoid.

Are You a Good Active Listener?

To determine whether you are good active listener, ask yourself if you display the following actions. Do you:

  • Pay attention to non-verbal cues?
  • Ask questions to clarify meaning when the speaker’s point is not understood?
  • Summarize and paraphrase the speaker’s main points before creating an answer?
  • Maintain eye contact?
  • Take brief mental or written notes on important points for clarification?
  • Stay alert for the speaker’s common themes?
  • Reflect on information before expressing views?

Conversely, if you didn’t answer “yes” to many of the above questions, ask yourself if the following traits accurately depict your listening style. Do you:

  • Interrupt to provide your own opinions and suggestions?
  • Feel distracted by anger or disagreement with the speaker?
  • Maintain eye contact?
  • Use the first response that comes to mind?
  • Focus on taking copious notes?
  • Confuse the overall point of the message with the details provided?
  • Tell people what they should say or think?

Often it’s difficult to conduct on honest self-assessment so ask some people; your spouse, co-workers, and friends are great resources. If you are a parent and feeling truly daring ask your children, you might be shocked by what you hear.

But Why?

No one chooses to be a poor listener. There are usually some underlying causes to this developmental opportunity. The reason you may be a poor listener is because you:

  • Are focused on what to say next rather than accurately understanding the other person.
  • Lack skill at accurately perceiving feelings and reading body language (emotional intelligence).
  • Feel uncomfortable with the topic, information, or emotions the speaker is sharing.
  • Believe that your own way is the only way and don’t listen to others' opinions.
  • Are distracted by time pressure, other concerns, or environmental (phone, electronics, etc.) factors.
Get Better

Don’t worry, all is not lost. You can improve your active listening by observing, learning and most importantly, practicing. Read the following suggestions and try 2 or 3 in the next couple of weeks:

  • If you do not understand what the speaker tries to communicate, ask them to restate the idea.
  • Paraphrase what the speaker said before you respond. Use wording such as “So what you’re saying is…”
  • At the close of a conversation, recap or summarize the main points and the motivations that might be behind them. Make mental note trends and themes from the discussion.
  • During daily activities, try to observe someone who you feel is a strong listener interacting with someone else. What makes that person a good listener? What verbal and non-verbal cues are used?
  • Learn what behaviors limit active listening. Consider how often you say things such as “Yes, but…” or “Let’s get to the point.” Do you check your mobile device or continue to type on the computer during conversations? These types of behaviors tend to communicate an unwillingness to listen and limit conversation.
  • Find out if you are a selective listener by observing what topics, what people, and in what settings you are or are not an active listener. 
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  • During conversations, offer brief summary statements of the person’s statements and associated feelings. Look for confirmation of your understanding from the other person. Paraphrase in your own words to avoid parroting the words of the other person, which they may perceive as mocking.
  • Employ verbal prompts, such as “Yes…”, “Go on…”, and “Tell me more…” and non-verbal prompts, such as nodding your head, leaning toward the other person, and making eye contact to encourage the other person to talk. 
  • During everyday conversations, try to focus solely on what the speaker is saying rather than forming your response. 
  • Minimize external distractions by turning off mobile devices and closing the door or going where you can be with the speaker one-on-one. If this is not convenient, ask to meet the speaker later to focus on what the speaker has to say.
  • Try not to argue mentally with the person. It distracts you from listening to what the speaker is trying to convey.
  • Take notes that identify important points or items for clarification during meetings. Review your notes and follow-up with an email or conversation if it remains unclear.

Active listening is an integral part of communication. Try incorporating a few of these suggestions into your professional or personal life in the next couple of weeks; think of it as your Listening Boot Camp without flipping huge truck tires…you may be surprised by what you actually “hear”.

Joe Carmen is the Director of Client Relations for Leadership Development at Quinnipiac Corporate Training.

He draws from three decades of practical, real-world leadership experience at West Point and in the US Army, as well as various engineering, operations, sales and leadership roles within Fortune 50 corporations and national award-winning schools.

In these various roles, he has developed unique processes for helping organizations succeed by turning management and leadership ideas into action.