Listen to Lead Better

Have you noticed that communication skills are usually focused on how to speak or present? The other side of communication is listening. According to research, in a typical business day we spend 55% of our time listening, 23% speaking, 13% reading and 8% writing.
On a scale of one to five, how would you rate your listening effectiveness? Are you consistently present and engaged when someone is talking with you? When you are in a conversation, are you a person who begins formulating a response or reflecting on something you need to do?
Here are some tips to increase your effectiveness:

  • Be Attentive – listen for information AND meaning. There is an inspiring TED talk from Dame Evelyn Glennie who shares her insights on How to Truly Listen. This is a powerful message from someone who lost most of her hearing by age 12. When we were in Hong Kong, a colleague commented on the Chinese character emblazoned on our notebook cover. It was a combination of symbols that represented the ears (to hear), the eyes (to see), the heart (to feel), the mind (to think) and undivided attention (to focus.) He said that the symbol on our notebook was an older version of “listen” and the character currently in use didn’t have the nuances of the older character. While the old character may not be in use, all the elements it represents are still useful reminders of what it takes to be attentive and listen well.
  • Mine the Nuggets – in an HBR article on the Discipline of Listening, Ram Charan shared a fascinating listening practice. The former CEO of Honeywell, Larry Bossidy, used pen and paper to listen better. He divided a piece of paper into two sections approximately one third and two thirds of the page. He’d take notes in the larger section. As he listened intently to the speaker he would capture key insights and issues. He’d scribble down those key nuggets, using a few summary words in the smaller column. (you can also get annotated paper from Levenger) By listening for the nuggets, he had to pay attention to the important content and focus on what really mattered.
  • Ask Questions | No Comments – suggestions or corrections do not enhance listening. If you practice the technique of mining for nuggets, you get the benefit of using the nuggets to ask clarifying questions that help you better understand what was said. Questions are honoring, suggestions are not. The higher you are in your level of leadership, the more your suggestions are interpreted as orders or even worse, criticism. Rather than making someone feel listened to, suggestions and corrections take away from the person sharing. Suggestions can also deflate the person you are talking with making him or her feel that the idea needed fixing.

The human connection between leading and listening is that employees want their voice to be heard. Being heard involves listening. During times of change (which is constant in today’s world), employees need an opportunity to talk and leaders need to listen. You will be a better leader if you improve your listening.
To learn more about listening, check out the International Listening Association. You’ll discover fascinating facts like; listening is one of the most important skills for an effective professional, yet only 1.5% of articles in business journals dealt with listening effectiveness (Smeltzer, 1993).

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