Say What? Listening Skills for Leaders

Listening Skills
Listening Skills
Listening Skills

Say What? Listening Skills for Leaders

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen Covey.

Want to communicate more effectively? Talk less. Listen more.

People do not talk their way into good personal and professional relationships; they listen their way into them. Many confuse listening with hearing. Effective leaders know the difference. Hearing is a physical process of sounds waves bouncing off ear drums. Listening is making meaning out of what you hear.

In The Art of Public Speaking, author Stephen Lucas suggests that most people are poor listeners. Refining your listening skills is imperative to sharpening your leadership skills. Leaders who listen make employees feel like their opinions matter, their ideas are considered, and concerns understood, are better positioned to be productive in terms of overall business performance and being able to contribute to a healthy organizational environment. 

Lucas outlines what interferes with our ability to listen and provides tips on improving our skills.

Four types of noise

Anything that interferes with the successful transmission of a message can be considered noise.

  1. Physiological noise can be anything going on inside the physical body. Feeling sick, tired, hungry or in pain can distract you from listening effectively.
  2. Environmental noise can be any audible or physical noise that is distracting. This includes: sirens driving by, kids playing, a wobbly chair, and the temperature of a room.
  3. Psychological noise is the combination of all the thoughts, ideas, worries, and anxieties competing with the speaker for one’s attention. 
  4. Semantic noise – is when the speaker and listener interpret the message differently. This includes how we interpret subjective words such as “sooner” and “later.”

Four barriers to effective listening

  1. Spare brain time Spare brain time is the difference between the rate at which most people speak (120 to 150 words a minute) and the rate at which the brain can process language (400 to 800 words a minute. ) This gap can be filled with distractions. Active listening is the cure.  
  2. Listening too hard – sometimes when people listen too hard they are trying to write down or remember every word said. This can lead to less overall retention. It is more productive to listen for themes, ideas, and key points.
  3. Jumping to conclusions – instead of actively listening, many people jump to conclusions. Be patient and listen to a complete statement before reacting.
  4. Focusing on delivery and personal appearance – It’s easy to focus on how a person is speaking, including their accent or mannerisms and on their clothing, hair, or makeup. Call yourself back from these distractions and focus on their message.

Five tips for effective listening

  1. Take listening seriously – Make an active effort to listen and to practice effective listening habits. Pay attention to the speaker.
  2. Be an active listener – make direct eye contact, ask questions without interrupting, paraphrase what the speaker said to be sure you understand their message, and nonverbally indicate that you are paying attention to and understanding the speaker. Do not look at your phone while someone else is speaking. Active listening makes the difference between a marginal leader and an exceptional one.
  3. Resist distractions – Distractions are going to occur. You can control how long you allow yourself to be distracted. Continually call your attention back to the speaker and actively listen.
  4. Don’t be diverted by appearance or delivery – Focus on the message. Notice appearance and delivery—they may be what make a speaker memorable! Continue to call your attention back to their message.
  5. Suspend judgment – Wait for a speaker to finish before crafting your judgement about them and their message. Snap judgements are going to happen in your brain. It’s how humans are wired. Take time to re-focus and actively listen for understanding.

In her article How to Really Listen to Employees, Sara Stibitz suggests controlling nonverbal reactions when listening. She notes it is just as important to maintain control over your body language as it is to notice the speaker’s. If you are sighing aloud, rolling your eyes, or take a defensive posture, others will notice.

Effective and productive leaders practice listening; to their employees, to stakeholders, and to their customers. Practicing these tips can empower you to become a more successful listening leader.