An Easy Leadership Upgrade: Learning to Listen

career leadership soft skills Sep 17, 2018
Woman leader listens to male employee

You probably think you already know how to listen. I thought that. Most people I’ve met have thought that same. Afterall, what’s more basic than listening? You’ve been listening since before you could talk, right? You’ve heard all about active listening and you’ve got that covered, right?

Even if you think you know it all in theory, are you really doing it?

Perhaps you've heard the story of the manager who was shocked and disappointed to learn a key employee was leaving. Maybe it’s even happened to you. When asking a fellow worker "Why didn't she say she was unhappy?" the coworker responded: "She did."

Feedback surveys often reveal that managers and leaders believe they are much better listeners than their teams say. Managers may hear words coming out of their employee's mouth, but are they really hearing, understanding and internalizing what the employee is saying? Have you communicated that you understand what has been said and what, if any, actions you will take? Do you follow up? 

Feeling valued creates a deeper level of trust and security at work, which frees us to spend less energy seeking and defending our value, and more energy creating it. In a world in which our attention is increasingly under siege, better focus makes it possible get more work done, in less time, at a higher level of quality. - Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath in Harvard Business Review

Earlier this year a Gallop poll revealed that yet again 66% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work. If you have 3 people reporting to you, only one is actually engaged and the other two are not. What is the source of this disengagement? Frequently the answer is the employee's direct manager, and particularly not feeling valued or respected. Often the manager finds this perplexing believing he is showing his team how he values them through performance evaluations, perhaps a spot bonus or a nomination to be the "Star of the Month". These are all fleeting, impersonal symbols that while they feel good for the moment leave the employee hungering for something more substantial. 

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. - Bryant H. McGill 

Listening sounds easy, but it is not. Think about it a moment, what is listen? 

Three Types of Listening

Level 1 - Subjective Listening: You relate what you are hearing to yourself and your experiences. When you are using Level 1 listening you will respond by relating back one of your own similar experiences. When you do this you are not giving your full attention to the speaker because you are busy coming up with your own response and reliving your experience. You may feel it's similar to what the speaker's experience is, but it rarely is. As a result the person speaking rarely feels connected or valued by the listener. 

Level 2- Objective Listening: Just the facts. You hear facts and can relate them back to the speaker. There are no thoughts about how your experience and how it relates to the speaker. Objective listening is more engaging because you are not filtering the other person's experience through your own and as a result can convey what the other is saying, at least superficially. Objectively listening is connecting facts but not emotion. Traditionally taught active listening is Level 2 Listening.

Level 3 - Intuitive Listening: Intuitive listening is about understanding the whole message and context, beyond just the words. The intuitive listener pays as much attention to what's not being said as what is being said - body language, expressiveness, tone of voice, and emotion. This most powerful form of listening allows you, the listener, to emotionally connect with the speaker. Rather than repeat the fact, the listener conveys understanding by going beyond paraphrasing to include a more broad and full understanding of the speaker's situation and emotions. 

The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said. - Peter Drucker

What people want most from their leaders is to feel that the leader understand them, their circumstances and their opinions. When an employee believes their manager understands them and appreciates their point of view or situation they will most often accept your decisions and directions, even if they are contrary to or different from what they are seeking. A leader who listens well, connects and is empathetic will have the respect and following of his/her team. A leader who is an effective listener will ensure that the people he/she disagrees with feel heard and understood, so that if thought they disagree with a decision they will respect the decision because they were given sufficient consideration.  

Quality Listening is Under Attack

I was recently watching a TED talk by Julian Treasure about listening.  What caught my attention most however was the notion that listening is under attack in our society. Think about it for a moment - do you really know what is being said in the lyrics of a song you like to sing along to?  

Another point to consider - how closely do you need to listen if you can record and review a presentation over and over? Do you really pay attention the first time? As a leader how closely do you pay attention to what's being said if you know someone else is taking notes?  

5 Ways to Be a Better Listener

In his TED talk Julian Treasure shares 5 ways to be a better listener. These are some listening exercises you can practice every day. 

  1. Silence: Give your ears a break and spend 3 minutes per day in silence (or as quiet as you can find). Let your mind reset so you can hear and notice the subtle sounds around you. 
  2. The Mixer: How many different sounds and conversations can you pick out in a noisy environment? Take time to focus for a time on each one, tuning out the others. 
  3. Savoring: Sit back and enjoy listening to some mundane, everyday sounds. The washing machine, dishwasher, the neighbor's leaf blower. What do you notice about the sounds? Are there any patterns that emerge?
  4. Listening Positions: Change your listening position to what's appropriate to what you are listening to. - active/passive
  5. RASA: This is an acronym for Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, Ask. When you listen you Receive the information (words, intonation, body language). While you are listening you can Appreciate and acknowledge what is being said. When you are done listening you then Summarize what you heard and Ask if you heard it right.

As a better listener your team and leaders will appreciate you more. You will be more caring and emphatic People will trust you more and follow you because of the dynamic you have created with them because you know them.

Julian Treasure's TED Talk is less than 8 minutes and you can watch it now. 


What can you do today to start listening better?

Contact us today to learn how to become a better listener and further develop your leadership skills. 

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