Four Ways To Be A Better Listener
When we consider the most important communication skills for leaders, we generally focus on the transmitting side of communication. Leaders work to develop their skills for speaking to diverse audiences, selling a message or vision, and managing performance. The other side of communications, receiving, is often overlooked. Yet, if leaders want to be effective, they must develop the art of listening.
Leaders who are strong listeners have learned to cultivate an approach to receiving information that enables them to keep a finger on the pulse of their organizations. They’re able to fully absorb and process what employees and colleagues tell them, as well as dictate and delegate. They enable others to feel heard.
Unfortunately, listening is a critical skill that’s getting lost.
With our frenetic pace and tendency to multitask, we’re all in danger of losing our listening skills. Hearing, the human’s primal alarm system, is the easy part. However, according to Seth Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University, listening is becoming more and more difficult to do in a world filled with digital distractions. “You never listen is not just the complaint of a problematic relationship, it has also become an epidemic in a world that is exchanging convenience for content, speed for meaning. The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.”
Even if you recognize that your listening skills are not the strongest, Horowitz goes on to say that listening is a highly learnable skill. It appears to be a use-it-or-lose-it opportunity. If you want to be a better listener, you need to practice deep listening.
Most, if not all, of us can benefit from improved listening. Here are some suggestions from the experts on how to develop your own listening skills. They’ll help you be a more effective leader – not to mention a better friend, colleague and partner.
Assume the proper physical posture.
When you hear that you must be open to listen, you can take it literally. Our posture carries significant meaning about how open-minded we are. Closed arms signals protectiveness and undercuts an open dialogue – no matter what your words are saying.
Pamela Cooper, the vice president of the International Listening Association, has a mnemonic for the optimal listening posture: SOLER. Squarely face the speaker. Open up your posture by uncrossing the arms. Lean toward the speaker. Make eye contact. Be relaxed.
This can also help you focus and prepare mentally to listen. Additionally, it can be beneficial to remove any physical barriers, such as a desk, so the openness is unfettered.
We know at this point not to obviously check our phone or email while speaking to someone, yet we too often try to surreptitiously multitask. (Yes, we can hear you quietly tapping your computer’s keys when you’re on the phone.)
If you want to make someone feel heard, you’re better off not having the conversation than insulting them by having a half conversation. If you know that you’re prone to distraction, get rid of the temptations from the start.
Put your phone away and silence it. Close out of email. Shut your door if you have one. Give the person the gift of your undivided attention.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
According to Mark Goulston, psychiatrist, hostage negotiator and author of Just Listen, empathy is key to being a good listener. “Think of everyone that you’re trying to get through to today, personally and professionally…ask yourself… how well they feel listened to and cared about by you. Be honest with yourself. If, when you do this, your answer is that they don’t [feel listened to], then ask yourself how motivated you would be to want to extend the conversation. The likelihood is, not very motivated.”
Goulston offers numerous ways to convey empathy and to activate the mirror neurons in our brains so we, in essence, get on the same wavelength. He says that humans are built to match each other in behavior. Goulston recommends asking questions that allow the person to “feel felt,” such as: “If I were you, I’d be frustrated by this lack of progress…is that true for you?”
By showing that we get the other person, and allowing them room to explain themselves, we validate them. Only when others feel heard, can they truly hear us in return.
Forget about your own agenda.
Goulston quotes the twentieth century psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion who said that “the purest form of listening” was to listen “without memory or desire.” In other words, most listeners are thinking about their own interests rather than the other person’s. Goulston elaborates: “When you are listening with memory, you’re trying to fit someone into one of your old agendas, and when you are listening with desire, you’re trying to fit them into a new agenda. In either case you are not listening to their agenda.”
A great leader will forget about themselves and what they want when listening to someone else. When you try to dig into what the other person feels is important, then you learn far more about them.
And here’s more good news. When we really listen to someone and ask curious questions, we help them form their own new ideas, which is a form of self-persuasion. Further, we learn more ourselves and enhance our own perspectives. Broadening the perspectives of ourselves, and others, expands knowledge – one of the most important and meaningful acts of leadership.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. She blogs at kristihedges.com.
This article also appears on Forbes.com.
Image credit: nimble.
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