Pay attention, actively
When you listen, the first thing to remember is that it’s not about you. You need to focus on the other person, what’s being said, and stop worrying about what you’re going to say. Don’t listen to have your ego stroked. Look at the speaker directly and put aside distracting thoughts. Avoid also being distracted by things around you. Try to put the speaker at ease by looking and acting interested. Smile and help that person to feel free to talk. This requires others to believe that you really want to listen. They must feel that if they tell you something, it will be received in the proper spirit.
Do your very best to avoid judging. Leaders who are judging are not listening. If you ask questions that have a judgemental tone to them, you will very quickly shut people up. People will also shut up if you keep interrupting them. How do you feel when you are rudely interrupted? If your train of thought is disturbed and you can’t thereafter return to your point, it becomes frustrating. Sadly, interruption is a common occurrence and shows huge disrespect. The more people are interrupted, the less they feel like persisting with their point and the result is disengagement.
Conversely, employees respect those leaders that do listen, because they know how difficult listening can be. Leaders earn respect from their peers and their followers by being patient listeners. You have to learn to stay in the moment. Concentrate, or take notes to signal that you are paying attention. Try to clear your mind and give the speaker your undivided attention. If something comes into your mind that needs your attention, make a note so that you can return to it later and remove it from your radar now. Some leaders I know talk of notebooks filled with notes taken during meetings that they never refer to again, because by taking notes they are both retaining the information and sending a signal that what the speaker is saying is noteworthy.
You need to show that you’re listening. Nod occasionally, smile and use other facial expressions, and encourage the speaker with small verbal comments like yes and uh huh. Watch the speaker for non-verbal clues –body language, facial expressions and eyes. People can say as much with their own non-verbal signals as they can with their words. Very often, when people are not giving voice to their opposition or disagreement, you will be able to pick up clear messages of negativity if you pay close attention to their body language. The tapping foot, a furrowed brow, clenching fists, bitten nails. These all reveal the feelings behind the words.
Watch out for your own body language – crossed arms or hands folded behind your head are negative signals. Lean forward, nod often, smile – recognize that your own facial signals will be conveying messages back to the speaker.
There are physiological reasons to explain why concentrating so hard is so necessary. People can listen about 5 to 10 times as fast as others speak. In the time it takes the speaker to say 100 words, the listener has the capacity to hear 500 to 1,000 words. It is easy to drift away and find other thoughts entering your head with that difference in speed. Having that much capacity allows you quickly to turn to worrying about the next meeting, planning your presentation, or even thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner tonight. One of the keys to effective listening is to use this capacity to analyse what is being said, instead of letting your mind wander.
Demonstrate that you are aware of how the other person is feeling. They may not express their emotion, but the clues will be there. Name the emotions that you see. If you say something like ‘I can see you are angry about this’, they can either disagree and tell you how they are really feeling, or they will appreciate that you have recognized their state of mind. Better still, say ‘I can see you are angry about this, because you think that…’ This will allow speakers to know that you understand how they feel, and why they feel that way. They could just say, simply, that you understand. Or you might say: ‘I know how you feel, I’ve often felt that way myself.’
Don’t tell people that they shouldn’t feel the way they do. By doing that you are invalidating their feelings. If you try to solve their problems immediately they feel underestimated and disempowered, pressured or even controlled. Most often, what people really want is support, trust and encouragement.
To be able to identify the underlying cause of the other person’s perspective, you have to be listening for all the clues as to why they think and feel the way they do. Don’t just cynically name the emotions – you need to show that you empathize with how they feel. There is no harm in saying that you too might feel that way in the same circumstances. It will not weaken your stature or your authority as a leader. But it is a powerful way of encouraging them to open up further.
If, however, you allow your own emotions to interfere with your listening efficiency, you will rapidly close down the conversation. You have to listen objectively and keep a tight rein on your temper. If you allow your emotions to run high, you will tune out the speaker, become defensive or even attack the other person. Don’t argue with them – even if you win the argument, you lose.