Listening seems like such a natural skill; one that we don’t need to practice or learn about. Really, who doesn’t know how to listen? Unfortunately, it seems that many of us haven’t mastered this core leadership skill, given how often the need for better listening turns up on 360 leadership assessments that I’ve seen.
We are living in an easily distracted time, with so many things vying for our attention: emails, phone calls, smart phones, Facebook, LinkedIn, TV – the list goes on and on. One of the casualties of this kind of environment is listening – truly listening to someone with your ears, mind and heart, which I call deep listening. This kind of listening is coveted by your team, your family and your friends. Deep listening creates stronger relationships, trust and loyalty. I recommend this kind of listening to all leaders who wish to make a difference with their teams.
Here’s five steps to active listening:
1. Physically prepare yourself to listen
Someone pops their head into your office to say, “Do you have a minute?” In our busy lives, it’s tempting to continue responding to email while you try to multi-task and listen to the person. If you don’t have a minute, say so and set up a future time to talk. Or, if you just need a moment to finish what you’re doing, you could say, “Give me one minute, please.” Then, immobilize your distractions: quickly finish what you were doing, take off your ear buds, put your cell phone away. Then physically create an environment for effective listening by either moving to a table near your desk or to a private room. Another option is to pivot in your chair so that you are facing towards the person with your hands off the keyboard. Then, look them in the eye and take a deep breath to oxygenate your brain. Then ask, “What’s on your mind?”
2. Focus on what the person is saying
Here are several suggestions on how to focus your attention on the other person and what they are saying:
a) As if you were watching a live play in a theater, imagine a spotlight illuminating the person who’s talking. Visualize darkness everywhere else. This directs your mind and attention away from yourself and to the other person.
b) To better focus on what the person is saying, silently repeat their words in your mind. For
example, if the person says, “I’m having trouble with Sharon, the accountant…” you mentally
repeat, “I’m having trouble with Sharon, the accountant…”
c) Visualize in your mind what the person is explaining. If the person is describing an argument they had with a co-worker, envision where they were and what they were doing as they were yelling at each other. I often get a picture of what was going on and play back that image to the speaker, as in, “I was imagining how that was for you, and I got an image of a momma bear in my mind. Did you feel like a momma bear?”
d) Get curious about what was going on under the surface. What was motivating the
characters? What might have led up to them acting the way they did? What were their
3. Ask open ended questions
To confirm your understanding and show that you are really, truly listening, ask some open-ended questions. Here are a few examples to get you started:
4. Paraphrase what you’ve heard
Another tip is to paraphrase or summarize what you’ve heard. You could say, “What I’m hearing from you is really three things…” or “Here’s where we are in this…” Then ask for agreement: “Do I have that right? Did I understand correctly?” Succinctly reviewing and summarizing what the speaker has said brings clarity to the situation and helps them focus on what’s really important.
5. Use empathy.
Brene Brown defines empathy as “connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience” (Dare to Lead, 2018, p. 118). Name the emotion that you guess they might be feeling, with words like, “Gosh, that’s terrible. You must have felt so frustrated.” That leaves the door open for the other to agree or refine the emotion. They might come back with, “No, I wasn’t frustrated, I was mad!” Another way to empathize this is to say, “I would be feeling the same way if I were in your shoes.” Sometimes, just your presence with the person is enough to show that you connect to what they are feeling.
In our multi-tasking, always-on world, it’s unusual to take the time to really listen. In my coaching and consulting practice, I find that those who make the effort to actively listen stand out as a leader and a shaper of high-impact teams.
From the desk of