Did you play the childhood game called “Telephone”? Listening is one of the most powerful social skills in our possession, and despite early lessons (or games) on it’s importance, mastering it can take a lifetime. Back in September of 2014, I had the privilege of teaching high school students for a full semester on the topic of leadership. On one particular day in December I walked into class, collected everyone’s homework and immediately had them form a line across the classroom. The students jumped to attention and started asking questions.
I didn’t answer them back. Once they formed the line, I told the class that I would whisper a phrase in that person’s ear, and then the next person would quietly tell the other and so on. The goal was to have the original phrase make it intact to the other end of the line. The phrase was “elephant juice.” As each student whispered in the ear of the student next to them, they would giggle and ask again what the phrase was. Finally, they came to the end of the line. The final statement on the opposite end of the line came out as: “I love you.“
Sure that was a fun little game to play, and everyone enjoyed a good laugh, but there was a greater lesson to learn that day. It’s impossible to be a leader without being a great listener. It’s hard to imagine, but in a typical business day, we spend 45% of our time listening, 30% of our time talking, 16% reading, and 9% writing. We spend more time listening than we do with anything else. If we want to increase our level of leadership then maybe we should be aware that 85% of what we know we have been learned through listening. Less than 2% of all professionals have had formal education or learning to understand and improve listening skills and techniques, and to be a great leader, you need to be a better listener than most.
Listening is a Leader’s Greatest Tool
Leaders should be visionary, passionate, and strategic, but they can’t and shouldn’t do it alone. If they cannot listen well, then they are walking down a dead end road. Listening is a responsibility that does not appear in a job description though it is crucial for everyone. In this article we will continue our series about Leadership and I will direct us through on Listening To Those You Leader with 4 Power Steps To Become Better by explaining:
- What Listening Entails
- What Happens When Leaders Listen
- Four Powerful Steps to Better Listening
What Listening Entails
A few days ago I was meeting with an individual for an appointment. We were talking and at the crux of our conversation this person picked up their smartphone and began texting. When I said I would wait, they responded with “Oh don’t worry I’m listening to you, and while you’re talking, I’m also texting my friend back.”
In a fast-paced world, many people feel compelled to multitask, and some may even feel bored without the distraction of more than one activity (ever watched TV and used your phone?). When we say that we are listening, it should be the sole focus of our attention. When it comes to listening, ask yourself: “Is it possible to be a good leader without listening? No. Then am I listening so I can be a great leader?” The truth is whether you lead an entire organization or a small team, you cannot take those who follow you to the highest levels without making the most of what you hear from your people. Furthermore, the act of listening isn’t just about one person; it’s about two or more people. Listening well gives complete attention and shows respect for your conversation partner.
What Happens When Leaders Listen?
When anyone in a leadership position listens, it is about more than eye contact and comprehension. A leader who listens is one who first listens, then learns, and then leads from there. I bet you already know someone who is a great listener. In my case, this person is a business leader that is usually silent for the first part of each meeting, choosing only to speak when everyone else’s thoughts have been aired. He always chooses to listen first and then speak second.
Leaders who choose to listen to those around them are making a conscious choice to learn at a deeper level. What do we learn? We discover what is happening in the minds of our colleagues, and how the atmosphere is functioning in the office, the organization, or among the team.
Four Powerful Steps to Better Listening
Power Step 1: Show You Care
It sounds easy – show you care, right? “Caring” means different things to different people, but in terms of listening, it means keeping the attention on the speaker and not interrupting.
The majority of my work is spent listening to people and then helping them solve their life problems. The last thing they need from me is to show a lack of concern for them by turning the focus away from them. In these situations, remind yourself: “It’s not about you.” Listening should be about the individual you are present with, whether you’re leading or following them.
As you listen and demonstrate that you care, they will work harder and produce beyond your expectations. Why is this? Your choice to care declares to them that you’re worth following. If we lose focus and treat those who follow us as our personal minions, then we won’t listen with care and their personal and professional progress will be hindered. I encourage you never to let your relationships with your follower end at work. For more ideas, refer to How To Build A Team In 5 Strategic Steps.
When you’ve been rudely interrupted and how did it feel? Not good. Essentially, it shows that the interrupter is already thinking about the next thing they are going to say, which means they haven’t been listening to you. The same element occurs when we do it to everyone else. If you want to become a greater listener and sharpen your leadership skills, then don’t interrupt the flow of the conversation. Men and women who lead at a higher level will value the power and strategy of two-way communication. Leaders who are present and patient in the conversation will gain the respect of their followers. Followers respect leaders who listen and care.
Power Step 2: Ask Questions
Questions are crucial to aiding clarification and keeping the conversation moving in a productive way. They indicate my level of understanding and engagement with my conversation partner. However, it’s not always easy to ask the right questions, so I use a few concepts to help in tough spots.
At a pause in the conversation, the first step is to process what the individual is saying to at the moment. What else do you need to know to understand what they are saying? Are they Follow with questions:
- For clarification: “Let me make sure I understand you. You mean _____, right?”
- For more depth: “Tell me more about that” or “What/How/Describe/Define….”
Avoid simple “yes and no” questions, as they can cause the person to dig deeper before answering.
Asking great questions goes well beyond being quiet, processing, and giving someone your full attention. It requires you to be aware of their external signs such as body language, facial expressions, mood, and behavior. The first step is simply to sit down with your key followers, make the decision to listen to them and ask more questions. Think of it this way: being a leader doesn’t give us license to talk constantly, but the license to listen and ask questions.
Power Step 3: Recognize the Investment of Others
Everyone around us contributes, whether we agree that it is valuable or not. With that in mind, is can be easy to overlook the investments that they have made. Believe it or not, this is a fundamental benefit of listening well. As we listen to those speaking to us, we will gather relevant knowledge of their work.
It’s important to understand that even if we don’t see any worth in the conversation, we must extend recognition for their investment. When we acknowledge their investments of ideas, actions, strategies, time, energy, and results, they become empowered. Empowerment then creates the production you want. Everyone wins in this scenario. The next step is to interact with your followers in a way that acknowledges their emotions and feelings.
For a leader, listening not only means to ask great questions, but it also means to encourage them to elaborate on what they’re telling you. This is the type of interaction that we all want. It can be as simple as asking them in a genuine way to expand on the subject from their viewpoint. When you choose to invest in your followers to this degree, they will know that you are giving them attention, demonstrating that you desire to learn from them, and most of all listening.
Power Step #4: Create A Listening Assessment.
By now we realize that if we want to be leaders who bring transformation, we know that by surrendering ourselves to listening to others, positive change can happen. We’ve established that we should never be too busy to listen. So how do we apply all of these Power Steps? The first place to begin is to create a listening assessment.
Creating a listening assessment for yourself to take an honest look at how you communicate with those around you. Let’s begin. We must always start by asking ourselves the following questions:
• Am I open to actively seeking feedback and insight from my team?
•Am I defensive when others criticize me or do I listen for the truth in their statements?
•Do I do most of the talking?
•Am I asking great questions in every conversation?
It’s a good start, but often it’s hard to objective about our actions. The assessment can also be given to a few people (ideally with different communication styles) to assess you as well. A listening assessment wouldn’t be complete if you weren’t also listening to someone else’s feedback!
Think of it this way. We have the power every day to add value to someone’s world if we are willing to listen. The next step helps to create accountability to stop dismissing someone because of their role or title when we should be listening. At the end of your day take ten minutes to reflect on your conversations. Calculate out how much time you spent listening, then how much time you spent talking.
How much information did you retain within the day? Once you have completed an entire week, add everything up and see what your results are. Now that you have done this, it’s time to set a goal to increase your listening percentage and decrease your talking percentage. As you continue through this assessment be sure to take inventory of a few important strengths that you should be building.
First, connecting. You cannot connect with other people when all you do is talk. Pace yourself. Stop, make eye contact, be fully present at the moment and watch your connection build.
Second, innovation. The only way innovation happens is when we seek out new ideas. Those fresh ideas will come from you listening to your followers and hearing what they’re saying. Learning to take their suggestions to heart will breed an atmosphere of innovation.
Third, confidence. The more you listen, ask great questions, and invest in your followers the more easily your confidence will increase.
The overall theme that we can take away from this is that it’s impossible to be an amazing leader without being a great communicator. Yes, there are plenty of other elements of leadership to focus on, but let’s not be fooled into neglecting the most important one…listening. We cannot forget that “being heard” is listening. One of the best compliments you can receive as a leader is to be known as an incredible listener. Do you want to increase your leadership toolbox? Then work on applying each one of these power steps on a consistent basis.
For more thoughts and ideas on this subject, I recommend the following books.
Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundation for Successful Leadership by John Maxwell, known as America’s #1 leadership authority. If anyone has mastered the art of listening, asking great questions, and incorporating it within their leadership, it would be him. If you want to grow in this particular area, grow your team, create fantastic strategies, and develop yourself, I highly recommend reading this book. You can purchase this book on Amazon.com for $16.00.
Powerful Listening. Powerful Influence. Work Better. Live Better. Love Better: by Mastering the Art of Skillful Listening by Tim Hast The title may be long, but the words within this book are on point. Hast stresses the fact that listening is the most powerful tool for leaders to be successful. He does a fantastic job of guiding the reader though real-life applications and practical skills. I encourage you to read this book and take your leadership to a new level. You can purchase this book on Amazon for $15.74.
What You Don’t Know About Listening (Could Fill a Book): Leadership Edition by Jon F. White and Alexandra Taketa Jon F. White does a great job of focusing on ways to help you as a reader learn, lead, and sustain your progress. This book focuses on practical action steps that you can apply on a daily basis, and not just on your own. Jon has done a wonderful job filling the pages with real-life examples and skill-building exercises. You can purchase this great read on Amazon for $17.91.