THE ART OF LISTENING
It’s no newsflash that being a good listener is important. Human beings are hardwired with a fundamental need to feel heard. For most of us, hearing comes naturally—but true listening involves more than merely hearing. Listening is an art.
Unfortunately, many people do not listen well. In today’s world, attention and focus are easily captivated by smartphones and tablets. It’s common for people to be wrapped up in their digital lives while ignoring those sitting right in front of them. This phenomenon applies to business people as well—even leaders.
The good news is that listening skills aren’t difficult to develop, and even master over time. Learning to be a good listener simply takes intentionality and practice. It requires setting egos aside, being curious, and asking questions—all with the goal of understanding what the other person has to say.
LISTENING FOSTERS ENGAGEMENT
Want more engaged employees? Start by listening. Showing genuine interest in what employees have to say is an important way for leaders to make evident that they value collaboration and communication.
Truly listening to employees demonstrates your investment in them, which strengthens their commitment and engagement. It takes everyone working together to build a productive, efficient organization culture.
LISTENING BUILDS TRUST
Listening is one of the essential building blocks of trust. If employees don’t trust you, they may be reluctant to share—as a result, you may miss out on important insights. Begin by asking questions and being curious. A lot of good things can happen simply by taking a genuine interest in your employees.
Benefits of asking questions and listening to employees:
- Uncover and challenge assumptions to be explored or corrected
- Gain understanding as to why individuals are underperforming
- Discover problems and opportunities you didn’t know existed
- Explore theories and find solutions to existing problems through collaboration
- Understand what motivates them (and what doesn’t!)
Trust can be built or lost based on your proficiency as a listener. Listening skills are central to productive work relationships. Ask yourself where your current level of trust lies with your team. Is there room for improvement?
LISTEN TO UNDERSTAND
Do you typically listen to understand—or merely to respond? These are two very different kinds of listening.
When listening to understand, you are taking in everything the speaker is saying – both verbal and non-verbal. You are focused on the other person, rather than yourself.
When listening to respond, your mind is divided as you consider points you can make when it’s your turn to speak. Others can tell you’re not invested in the conversation. You are more focused on yourself, rather than truly digesting what the other person is saying.
To build trust, try listening to understand by giving your full attention to the speaker. Wait until they have finished speaking to formulate a response (if one is needed).
3 LEVELS OF LISTENING
When conversing, there may be many thoughts drifting through your mind. What’s next on my to-do list? What should I get for lunch? How can I improve performance? Do I need to stop by the dry cleaner after work?
Do your best to quiet these distractions and focus on the other person. When fully engaged, you can elevate a one-sided encounter to a productive conversation.
There are different levels of listening, responding, and understanding that occur when having a conversation. During the course of any conversation, you may naturally sway through the following three levels of listening at various points. The idea is to spend most of your time engaged in Level 3 listening, but there are times with the other levels may be appropriate.
LEVEL 1: "ALL ABOUT ME" LISTENING
“All About Me” listening happens when people are totally in their own world. They are listening to respond, thinking about themselves and their needs, and considering how what’s being said will impact them. This sort of internal reaction puts the focus primarily on their own emotions. They might also be multi-tasking or thinking of other things, even unrelated topics. This level of listening gives little attention to the other person. The other person can tell.
LEVEL 2: "ALL ABOUT YOU" LISTENING
“All About You” listening pays exquisite attention to the other person. The listener is focused on the speaker, giving them eye contact, nodding to show that they are tuned in, putting phones down, and not multi-tasking or thinking about what they’ll say next. This level of listening demonstrates a shift in experience as the listener begins to switch focus from themselves to the person they are listening to. The other person can sense when a listener is paying attention (or not).
LEVEL 3: "ALL ABOUT US" LISTENING
“All About Us” listening gives full attention to the speaker, but increases the impact by investing personally in the conversation. It’s evident to the speaker that the listener actually cares. This makes it the most powerful level of listening. The listener is fully present, focused on the relationship, and in tune with both verbal and non-verbal cues for more insightful responses. Replies are less focused on “me” or “you,” but instead “us.” Engaging in this way is mutually beneficial. It enhances awareness and leads to better follow-up questions for more enriching and fruitful conversations. Understanding, rapport and trust build. And if there is an outcome action item, following through will further deepen the trust.
SELF-AWARENESS IS KEY
Making an effort to improve your listening skills can be of great benefit both personally and professionally. Effective leaders are adaptive and able to adjust—the area of listening is no exception. Set goals and check in with yourself to see how you are progressing.
Simply by practicing awareness, you might catch yourself listening at a Level 1. Noticing this can help you re-engage and move to Level 2 or 3. It’s natural for our minds to wander. When this happens, take a breath and re-focus on what your listener is saying with the intent to understand. Try to consider things from the “us” viewpoint.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
There may be times when Level 2 or 3 listening is impossible due to time constraints or other distractions. When this happens, especially in the case of interruptions, acknowledge the speaker and affirm that what they have to say is important to you. Tell them you want to devote your full attention to them, but it isn’t possible right now, and be intentional about scheduling a time to do so.
LEARN FROM OTHER GREAT LEADERS
Think of someone you know and admire as a great leader. Chances are, that person is also a great listener. What makes them that way? What do they do? Consider how you feel when talking with them. What qualities do you notice in a good listener (e.g. curiosity, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, eye contact)?
By noticing your own reaction to the way conversations flow, you’ll be able to use this information to hone your skills. Ask yourself: Is the other person really listening to me? Am I feeling heard? Why or why not?
It also helps to pay close attention other people so you can better gauge their disposition. You’ll learn when an environment should be changed. You might notice facial cues or body language and become more in tune using the feedback signals they are providing you. By focusing on them, how you perceive them in that moment, you’ll be better able to connect. By “meeting them where they are,” you demonstrate interest and can facilitate a conversation that flows with mutual interaction.
Ask people whom you trust to provide you with honest appraisal:
- Do they typically feel “heard” when you’re listening?
- How can they tell - how do you look when you’re listening?
- Realize that people may need to be heard, but aren’t ready for immediate solutions.
- Check in with them - ask if the speaker wants input or just wants you to listen.
- Ask open-ended questions to help guide conversation (i.e. questions that start with “what,” “when,” “where,” “who,” “how”).
- Avoid asking “why” questions — it can feel like an attack.
- Point your toes towards the speaker and make eye contact.
LEARN FROM THOSE WITH EXPERIENCE
Another great way to improve your listening skills is to enlist help from experts in the field of teamwork and collaboration. ORG has helped transform countless organizations, resulting in dramatic performance improvement. Learning to listen is no small part of that—it is a foundational element of employee engagement, which is key to sustainable success.
Could your organization benefit from improved listening and increased collaboration?