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Leadership Development

Leaders Listen Up: Better Listening Equals Better Leadership


We all know that listening can boost positive relationships. Lesser known is that active and focused listening is a gateway to better decision making, strategy, and bottom-line results, making it important for leaders to sharpen these skills.

Listening well is still a very under practiced and underutilized competency. The key is purposefully choosing the way we listen.

Active listening doesn’t just mean eye contact.

A leader I coach expressed surprise at receiving a low frequency rating for listening on a 360º assessment. His comment was, “listening is all I do!”

He described how his virtual team called in everyday to “download” information to him so he could make decisions and report out to the senior team. What he learned from the feedback was that he was not active in his listening by acknowledging or communicating back what he had heard.

Since his team could not see his body language virtually, he became more practiced not only at verbal responses but using prompts to encourage his team to say more. He had to admit he gained new insight and his decision-making was more effective.

Beware the common misperception that it is “leaderly” to be dominant and immediately decisive.

One leader admitted that she ‘tolerated’ listening to another’s point of view, but knew 99% of the time that her mind was already unilaterally made up. She understood the value of seeking opinions and collaborating in theory, but said she found it physically painful to listen when she had already decided on a course of action. She also defaulted to her style of quick-paced decision-making because she saw this as a “positive leadership attribute.”

Her blind spot was not recognizing that her team became disengaged as a result of this. She chose to learn to be more purposeful in her listening and used mindfulness techniques to keep herself “curious” in conversations with others. The result enabled her to value her team more and in turn, actually enjoy their individual contributions.

Here are some tips for increasing leadership listening:

  • Decide to Listen: When you enter into a conversation ask yourself if you would really rather say to the other person, “I’m going to pretend to listen, but I’m actually going to sell you on my own idea”. If you answer “yes” to this, you are not ready to listen. If you answer “no” to it, hold yourself accountable to be present and learn as much as you can. It is perfectly okay to say, “Thank you for giving me your perspective, I see things differently and this is how I want us to proceed...”

  • Set a Time Frame: Sometimes a team member can go on and on when given the opportunity. Set a listening time frame up front, finding language that suits your style. You might say, “I know you have some ideas about this project. If we spent 10 minutes on this now, will that give us a good start?”

  • Do a Listening Audit: Review your conversations at the end of the day. How many times were you really listening as compared to checking off the box, preparing your next comment in your head, listening with impatience, or over-talking. Seek out a trusted colleague or coach to discuss this.

  • Learn to Summarize: Your team wants to be heard. A verbal summary is one way of acknowledging and appreciating the intent of others. Again, be true to your style and find ways to summarize another’s point of view in a way that doesn’t sound condescending. This is also a useful technique for respectfully closing conversations rather than just turning away. Consider saying, “I can see the decision has an impact on your work, thank you for giving me that perspective.”

  • Ask for Direction Up Front: Ask others how they want you to listen or what they want from the conversation. Does your team want you to listen to seek understanding? Do they want an opportunity to vent? Do they want assistance in problem-solving? Leaders need different skills for each of these listening opportunities. Give your team, colleagues, and family permission to request how they want you to listen - if they don’t, ask.

Listening is not easy and learning to do it well deserves a valued place in leadership development. Listening actively and appropriately is at the foundation of respect. Today is a great day to assess your own listening skills and start working on ways for improvement!

Al Ibrahim // cc by 2.0 //

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Holly Seaton

Holly Seaton is an executive coach who appreciates the privilege of helping organizations and individuals build their leadership capacity by moving from intent to action.