5 Ways to Improve Your Active Listening as a leader

Leadership Coaching, Presence, Self Awareness
11/25/20 - Shari Santoriello

Ask any group what is one of the things they wish their leader did better. One of the answers is almost always that they want to be heard. The leader looks on in surprise at this answer and says, “I hear you!” But, as leaders, do we listen? Do we really practive active listening as a leader? Or just receive the sound stimuli into our ears and answer with whatever we think is being asked?

While listening is an activity that we all do inherently throughout each day, are we doing it well? Many of us probably aren’t. We’re busy and distracted! We fill in the blanks because we think we know what’s being said, and therefore, don’t really need to listen.

Active listening as a leader is a process and needs practice to perfect the technique. Here’s five tips to help you hone this skill and start truly listening to your team.

Tip #1: Remove Distractions and Pay Attention

This is the hardest part of the listening process.

We are all busy and have lots of distractions from work, news, deadlines, personal challenges. It doesn’t help that our phone is blowing up every second. Plus, we’re not always sure when we need to listen. When we were children, we were always told when to listen. As we grew up, we stopped getting the reminder. (Imagine if you were able to tell your leader, “123, eyes on me” when you needed their attention??)

This is an area that a leader can make the most noticeable improvement. When a team member wants to chat, take notice of the context surrounding the request and be prepared to give them your undivided attention. This means closing email, putting down your phone, facing your body and eyes in the direction of the person speaking. Try to clear your mind of self-talk and internal dialogue. (This is especially hard as we are often thinking of our response instead of truly paying attention.)

If you can’t pay attention in that moment, be honest and tell the speaker: “I’m interested in what you have to say, but now is not a good time and I would like to give you my full attention”. Then set a time that works better. The key is to follow through! This will build you a lot of credibility and good will with your group.

Tip #2: Understand What’s Being Said

So often we answer what we think is being said, and not actually what is being said. That’s because we often do not confirm the meaning of the message. There are a few reasons for this, but more often than not, we didn’t actually pay attention. Sometimes we, as listeners, are fearful of asking someone to repeat what they said or clarifying a meaning as we don’t want to be perceived negatively!

Being sure that you understand what is being said is critical to being successful at active listening as a leader. It is also one of the easiest parts of the listening process. It can be as simple as asking the speaker “what?”. Other ways to confirm the meaning is to paraphrase what is being said to you and straight-forwardly ask if this is what was meant. This way you can get an answer before the conversation goes any further and has potential for not being a positive or productive experience.

Two people pulling a dog's ear

Tip #3: Remember What’s Being Said

This is not dissimilar to paying attention, but is a more internal process. If you have been successful at clearing your mind to active listening as a leader, you will want to be sure that you remember what the crux of the conversation is about so that you can respond appropriately.

While taking actual written notes is a great way to remember, it isn’t always feasible to when someone is speaking to you. Here’s some other ways to start conditioning your mind to remember the message:

  • Repeat, repeat, repeat
  • Make quick associations (use acronyms or mnemonic devices)
  • Ask if you can record the conversation (this is especially helpful if the conversation is long or you won’t be able to respond in the moment)

Tip #4: Evaluate Appropriate Responses

Does this team member require empathy? Direction? A solution?

The most appropriate response isn’t always top of mind. It takes a moment to analyze the message and the outcome the speaker is looking for. Take into account the meaning of the initial message and be sure that your response will continue to send a consistent message and support the expectations that you have set for your team. You must also consider the speaker and what you know about them and how they receive information. Being able to adapt to the different styles of your team will help make your conversation more productive.

Tip #5: Respond and Give Feedback

Once you decide on the most appropriate response, feel free to engage in conversation with your team member.

Watch for nonverbal cues to know if your response has been well-received. It’s important that your response lets your team know that you took the time to actively listen to what they had to say and that it was important to you. Feel free to ask for feedback so you can be sure that you understood the message and they understand your response. If you didn’t hit the mark, repeat the cycle as many times as it takes to ensure the speaker feels heard.

Teams will typically work more efficiently, harmoniously and productively if they feel empowered that their voice can and will be heard. Practicing active listening as a leader will often be rewarded with open communication, innovation, objectives being met and a cohesive work group. Remember to put your “listening ears” on!

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