Few skills are more critical for effective leadership than listening in a way that makes employees and customers feel understood, accepted and heard.

There’s an old adage that says “God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason.”  Yet, when you consider how many emails, text messages, voice mails, unsolicited marketing messages and other interruptive communications we receive every day, there seems to be a lot more talking than listening going on.

Few skills are more critical for effective leadership than the ability to listen in a way that makes employees, customers and other stakeholders feel heard and understood. So why aren’t more leaders doing it?

Controlling Our Own “Brain Noise”

Listening is both an art and a skill. It’s also a discipline that requires developing the self-control to do three things at the same time:

  • Sit quietly and listen
  • Put aside our needs during the conversation
  • Focus our attention on the person speaking

Unfortunately, the way the human brain works tends to interfere with these tasks. When someone talks to us, our brain immediately begins processing the words, body language, tone, inflection and perceived meanings coming from the speaker. Instead of hearing one “noise,” we hear two – the noise the other person is making and the noise in our own heads. Unless we train ourselves to remain vigilant, we usually end up focusing on the noise in our heads.

Hearing becomes listening only when we pay attention and closely follow what the other person is saying. To do that, we need to stay aware of which noise we’re listening to and consciously redirect our attention back to the speaker when we get off track.

Develop the Skill of Active Listening

Active listening is the process of listening to someone in a way that focuses your attention on what they’re saying so they feel heard and understood. The skills aren’t difficult to learn, but they require practice to master.

  • Focus on the person and the message. To quiet the noise in your head, focus your entire attention on the speaker. Listen without judgement, and avoid formulating a response before they’re halfway through. Pay attention to the speaker’s body language as well as their words.
  • Communicate your attention using body language and gestures. Face the speaker directly and make eye contact. Sit or stand in an open position. Smile and nod from time to time.
  • Acknowledge what the person is saying. To indicate your understanding of what the person is saying, occasionally interject with “uh huh” or “I see”. This doesn’t mean you agree with the person; it simply indicates your active listening. It also helps keep your attention focused on the speaker rather than the noise in your head.
  • Don’t interrupt. Interrupting shows impatience and disrespect, especially when it involves an argument rather than a question. It also frustrates the speaker and limits your understanding of the message. Keep your impatience in check and allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions.
  • Build rapport. After listening a while, engage with the speaker by asking questions or reflecting back what you heard. For example, “What I’m hearing you say is….” Or, “I’m not sure I understand….” This shows you’re paying attention and will allow you to gain more information.
  • Be authentic. Be candid, open and honest when responding to the speaker, but do so in a respectful manner. If there’s a conflict or disagreement, focus on the issue rather than the person.

The Benefits of Listening Well

Active listening:

  • Promotes better communication
  • Improves employee morale
  • Reduces employee turnover
  • Helps resolve interpersonal conflict
  • Encourages employees to express their opinions and perspectives
  • Opens the door to new ideas and possibilities

Active listening also increases employee engagement. When people feel understood, heard and respected, they become more aligned with your vision of winning for the business. They also feel safer when bringing up new ideas or points of view than run counter to the status quo.

As leaders, we need as much information and as many different perspectives as possible to make the best decisions. Practicing active listening will help produce the engagement, information and new ideas your organization needs to win.