By Doug Glener and David Witt
Listening is one of the most important life and leadership skills to master. But it’s harder than you might think: We typically retain less than 25% of what people say.
That’s a big problem for anyone with direct reports.
If you’re a poor listener, you won’t know how to engage your people because their motivations will be a mystery. You’ll struggle to improve their performance because you won’t understand their challenges. And you won’t be able to build their competence and commitment—two foundation stones of SLII® that make for success in the workplace.
Good leadership starts with good listening. Here are four skills you can immediately use that will make you a better listener.
- Give Your Complete Attention
We all have stories of someone not giving us their full attention. Here’s mine (Doug): I once had a boss who regularly took phone calls and checked emails during our one-on-one meetings. What message did that send? The other person was more important than I was. Do this frequently enough, and you'll erode loyalty and morale.
I've certainly multitasked when talking to someone and regretted it afterwards. I knew I had been disrespectful and unkind to the other person. I’m happy to say that I am eliminating that habit from my life.
Giving someone your attention is simple. Close your office door. Put your computer to sleep. Turn off your cell phone. Do away with any other distractions. And listen intently.
- Don’t Interrupt
Some tendencies to interrupt stem from cultural differences and family backgrounds, says Sherri Gordon in an article for VeryWell Mind. But others stem from individual needs and behaviors like these:
A need for control. Some interrupters are impatient, goal-driven people who like to get straight to the point. And their way of making that happen is to interrupt and usurp control of the conversation.
Excessive excitement. Some people interrupt because they are so excited about what you are saying that they cannot wait until you finish to contribute their thoughts and feelings.
Lack of awareness. Likewise, many chronic interrupters have no idea they are even doing it. To them, interrupting other people is what makes the conversation interesting and dynamic.
Gender differences. Interestingly, men interrupt women more than they interrupt men. For instance, a study from George Washington University found that men interrupted women 33% more often than they did other men.
This one might sound obvious, but if you want your people to feel heard, don't interrupt them.
- Ask Open-Ended Questions
Sometimes you'll want someone to clarify what they said. That's the time to ask open-ended questions—questions that can't be answered with a yes or a no.
Here are some examples of open-ended questions you can use:
- “How do you think the situation can be improved?”
- “What are your thoughts about this?”
- “How do you feel about this?”
- “What would you do to improve XYZ?”
For questions about competence and commitment, you can ask:
- “How confident do you feel at this task?”
- “What resources might help you tackle the project?”
- “How can I help you be more successful?”
- “What do you need to be more committed to the task?”
You've probably noticed that these questions start with either “What” or “How.” They invite the listener to respond in more detail. They also show that you care about their opinions.
Also note the absence of questions that start with “Why.” For example, “Why did you do that?” These can easily put someone on the defensive, so use them wisely.
- Be Empathetic
Being empathetic is a powerful way to let people know they are heard. A best practice is to mirror (reflect back) what a person said and offer support. For example, you can say something like, “I understand it must be difficult to juggle so many projects. What can I do to help?” This shows the speaker that you were closely listening, which is an expression of empathy.
Putting yourself in someone else's shoes is another effective way to be empathetic. You can do this by asking thoughtful questions and being curious. Try to understand and feel their struggles while remembering they are doing the best they can given the circumstances.
An unexpected benefit of empathy is that it is contagious. This is the case with all emotions. Show that you're stressed, and you'll pass it on to others. Be empathetic and the person you're talking to is more likely to act that way.
Empathy is also one of the qualities people value most in their leaders. This isn’t surprising given that we are coming out of the pandemic and are in a time of great change. Be empathetic and you'll be a better leader.
Giving People the Support and Direction They Need
Use these four communication skills to determine a person's levels of competence and commitment at a task. Once you have a better understanding of these qualities, you can lead situationally—and give the individual the support and direction they need to succeed.