Tip #4: Listen – Actively Listen

Actively listening means turning your attention fully to the person you are with. It means listening not to just the words, but for emotions, and for ideas especially those different than yours. Active listening provides opportunities for others to share, and feel that their voice is heard and considered.

In today’s hectic pace it is difficult for anyone to take the time to listen, and the demands on leaders keep escalating – not to mention being bombarded by phone, email, and text messages, plus constant interruptions. Is it any wonder that leaders don’t have the time or energy to pause and give their full attention?

Yet listening is a key leadership skill.  It is in the moments of total attention that interpersonal connections occur. This is when learning and understanding blossom, creative ideas spark, and collaboration happens.  Listening is foundational for trust and to demonstrate caring. Trust is built on being present to another. Want to be a better leader, co-worker, partner, friend? Listen.  Truly listen.

Not only is listening an opportunity to develop another person, but also to learn. And it is a true gift.  That is the comment we hear the most when facilitating listening skill building activities, and when talking with employees. It’s a gift for both the listener and the person being listened to.

Think about this from your own perspective. How many times were you talking with someone and knew they weren’t listening to you?  How did that feel? Or a time when you realized that you missed important information because you failed to listen when you should have?

You know when the person you are talking to is distracted, don’t you?  And so do those who are talking with you when you aren’t fully present. There are many reasons we’re poor listeners, when we are,

  • Thinking about other things,
  • Trying to come up with a response or form an argument,
  • Multi-tasking, or
  • Just too self-absorbed to take the time to acknowledge what is happening to the other person.

Here’s a common example between and manager and employee that goes like this:

Leader: Hi Sally, how are you?

Sally: Great! I’ve been working on that that project and feel I’m making progress. How are you?

Leader: I’m okay. There’s something I need…

The leader didn’t pay attention to what Sally said, and, without any thought, continued with their own agenda item he/she needed. How do you feel when this happens?  Heard? Valued? That what you’re working on is important or mattered? What do you think just happened to Sally’s level of engagement, commitment, and productivity?

Instead, create that interpersonal connection, which truly doesn’t take much more time and will make all the difference.  But it takes practice, effort and commitment! Here are a few ideas for how to actively listen:

  • First, just pause.
  • Stop looking at your computer, phone, papers, etc.
  • Look at the other person. Make eye contact.
  • Use your senses to listen to the words, meaning, and feelings conveyed.
  • Shut off your own thoughts — the argument, planning a response, and/or your agenda.
  • Acknowledge what the other person said.

This doesn’t mean that you are agreeing with the other person, just that you acknowledge their point of view; that you heard them. You don’t have to agree at all, actively listening just means you acknowledge what they said and the feelings conveyed – it affirms the understanding of their position. Leaders can and certainly should then explain their point of view, but acknowledging the other person lets them know that her/his ideas, perspectives, and thoughts are valued and that you care.

Listening is an essential tool that creates psychological safety – a climate that makes it safe to speak up. Actively listening communicates that what the other person is saying is important. Humans are social creatures and we have a need to be understood.  Employees need to know that their contributions matter; that they are valued. When you acknowledge the other person before stating your own point of view, this tells the other person that you value her thoughts, ideas, and perspectives, and that, in essence, you care about her.

And it’s not just listening for words, but meaning, emotions, and feelings. This is empathic listening, sometimes called 360 listening. Empathic listening isthe magical ingredient. It’s the ability to not just listen to whatthe person is saying, but howthey’re saying it — meaning and feeling behind the words. Even better is when leaders learn to pause and listen for what the person is not saying.

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