To be a better leader, practice active listening

To be a better leader, practice active listening

To be a better leader, practice active listening

Listening is an intentional behavior. When you actively listen, you are present and focused on what the other person is saying because you want them to feel heard and valued. When your team feels heard, they know they matter and you welcome their input, even if you disagree.

However, if your team doesn’t feel like you’re listening to them, they’ll feel disconnected from you and the organization. The most common reasons for a disconnect occur when you half-listen during conversations or when your thoughts and emotions become inflamed. Whether you are reacting to something that was said, disinterested or focused on your own thoughts, you have turned away from the other person and are not fully present.

Over time, poor listening can be insidious for an organization.

The repercussions affect all areas of your business, including engagement, retention, conflict resolution, and problem solving. Your team follows your lead and people start talking at each other instead of with each other. They stop listening.

When your team stops listening to each other, they lose their sense of belonging and connection, and their commitment to you as a leader and to the organization diminishes. Communication begins to break down, and your team experiences more misunderstandings and makes more mistakes. Widespread negative consequences are why you and your team need to learn how to be effective communicators.

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is a communication skill that requires practice and intention. It is a way of listening and responding to another person that enhances mutual understanding and respect.

When you practice active listening, you pay attention to the full message and seek to fully understand what the other person is communicating. You listen to the words the other person uses, but also pay attention to their body language and tone of voice. And you focus on the interaction without being distracted or lost in thought.

Let’s look at how different listening styles play out in an imaginary conversation between Charles, the vice president of a medical supply company, and Justine, a well-respected senior executive at the same company. Justine has just informed Charles that she wants to reconfigure her team. She also expressed her deep frustration with the team’s lack of motivation.

In the first scenario, Charles has an immediate emotional reaction to Justine’s frustration and interrupts her, challenging her ability to manage her team. Taken aback by her comments and worried that she might leave the company, Charles stopped listening to her. Her emotions took over and hijacked the conversation. Charles’ inability to listen to and consider Justine’s feelings or perspective is not unusual. This is a common reaction when we stumble emotionally, whether the heightened emotions are negative or positive.

In the second scenario, Charles’ reaction to Justine’s frustration takes a different form. This time, instead of challenging her, Charles logged out and went into protection planning mode. Panicked, he began to think about what he would do if Justine decided to quit. Charles nodded as Justine spoke and seemed to be listening. But he was distracted. Because his thoughts were racing, he wasn’t listening.

In the third scenario, Charles acknowledged that he was reacting to Justine’s frustration but decided to listen carefully to understand what Justine needed from him before responding. Even though he was caught off guard and anxious about losing a valuable employee, he knew he had to listen to understand if he wanted to get a good result. When you approach a conversation with a desire to understand the other person, you are more patient, open-minded, and curious.

In the first two scenarios, Charles demonstrated little self-awareness. He was emotionally reactive, distracted, and only half-listened. He showed no consideration for what Justine said or how she felt. These examples illustrate that when someone disconnects, they stop listening and cannot fully engage in the interaction, even when the outcome is important to them.

In the final scenario, Charles demonstrated self-awareness and practiced active listening. He didn’t allow his emotions or his assumptions to deflect the conversation. Suddenly, Justine felt heard and supported by Charles, who showed her that he was interested in everything she had to say, no matter where the conversation was going and if he agreed with her.

5 tips for becoming an active listener.

When you make an intentional, conscious decision to stay present in a conversation and listen to understand, you are practicing active listening. To do this, you must bring self-awareness to the interaction, allowing you to pay attention to what is happening. To become a more active listener:

  1. Choose to be fully present in the conversation. Active listening is a decision. You can choose to pay attention during an interaction and notice what is happening. Join in the conversation, but also observe yourself, the other person, and what’s going on between you. Notice if the energy changes, which could indicate the other person is losing interest or getting upset. Practice being aware of your interactions.
  2. Focus on what the other person is saying. Give the other person your full attention. This is not only courteous but also a sign of respect. Make eye contact, put your phone down, and eliminate all distractions.
  3. Listen to understand. When you listen, be patient, suspend judgment, and let go of preconceived assumptions. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt that they also want a positive outcome and aren’t trying to upset you or start a disagreement.
  4. Change posture. If you notice yourself getting upset, having trouble staying focused, or feeling bored or excited by what the other person is saying, change your posture. Sit up straighter, pull your shoulders back, and place both feet on the floor. Notice that your feet connect to the floor. Then take a deep breath and focus on the interaction.
  5. Reflect on the conversation. When the other person has finished speaking, reflect on what they said and check that you understood what they were trying to communicate. If any part of their message is unclear, ask them to help you figure out what they meant. Being caring enough to understand their message shows that you are actively engaged in the interaction.

When you show your team you care, they’ll want to work for you. By being an active listener, you build trust with your team and increase their commitment to you and the organization. This increased engagement affects productivity and the overall culture.

Active listening is an intentional behavior. It’s the basis of how you connect and build trust with others, which, in turn, creates a positive work environment. Don’t underestimate the power and influence of active listening. It’s one of the most effective ways to keep your team motivated and engaged.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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