“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak,” Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote. One of the most important and most neglected communication skills for leaders is listening. What most people consider listening — the absence of speaking — is a poor substitute for the actual art of active listening.
According to Gayle Cotton, Emmy award winner, president of Circles of Excellence and author of “Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere,” “If people feel that what they say doesn’t matter because you’re not really going to listen to it, you keep people from wanting to communicate with you and create difficult, superficial relationships. It stifles creativity.”
Today’s technology facilitates our ability to access insight and knowledge as well as to focus increasingly on productivity. But technology also creates a steady flow of distractions and reduces time for individual interactions. As a result, conversation — the reciprocated roles of one person speaking and the other listening — is becoming a lost art.
“Conversations are at the heart of what connects people. They provide a way to learn what others know, need, believe, like, want and avoid, and that makes conversations essential,” says Susan RoAne, author of “How to Work a Room” and “What Do I Say Next?” If poor listening is indeed “the common cold of leadership today,” as described by “Emotional Intelligence” author Daniel Goleman, what is the remedy?
Communicating effectively requires active versus passive listening. “To be a skilled communicator, you need to listen and reinforce people,” Cotton says. “You need to slow down a bit. It’s a conscious change: I’m not going to rudely interrupt. As a leader, I’m going to guide the conversation politely. I’m going to show that I’m interested. I’m going to focus on the speaker and really listen to what she or he is saying. I’m going to hold my judgment until I have a good grasp of the situation. I’m not going to show signs of impatience, and I’m going to do a brief summary close. This may sound time-consuming, but in fact it takes less time because you avoid any misunderstanding that comes from not really listening and you improve relationships.”
Learning to adapt your communication style is the simplest way to minimize miscommunication and develop better rapport with colleagues, clients, employees and other leaders. “Talk with people not at them,” Cotton says. “If you as a communicator, and especially as a conversationalist, are aware enough to observe somebody else’s communication style — direct, relaxed, demonstrative, less expressive — and you adapt your communication style to what’s comfortable for them, then they immediately feel more comfortable with you and are apt to share additional information. When it comes to communication, not knowing can equal not succeeding.”
Listening affects the bottom line
Creating the right environment, one that encourages people to say what they think, to share ideas and accomplishments, and to argue individual perspectives, is key to earning the respect and loyalty of a company’s biggest asset, the employees. “If a leader thinks the future lies in knowledge — creating new products, building software — then the way to access the knowledge they need is by listening,” says Dennis Sandow, president and founder of Reflexus Company, which has conducted social action research since 1976. “When a leader listens to what is being accomplished, how value is created, then employees feel recognized for being able to contribute to the future of the organization. That significantly increases individual and group productivity.”
Showing respect for ideas and reminding colleagues you want to listen helps build connections with a team and engender greater employee engagement and retention. “Leaders who learn to listen and converse in a deeper way uncover the unmet needs of others who are uncomfortable speaking out. The connection builds trust and the increase of trust increases employee engagement,” says Norm Smookler, a YPO certified forum facilitator and a leadership and organizational development consultant specializing in trust-building and 360˚ feedback (360˚ feedback allows for confidential, anonymous feedback from people who work around someone which could include employees, peers, direct reports and managers).
Finding ways to improve communication through self-reflection as well as soliciting open, honest feedback demonstrates a receptiveness and willingness to change. “’Harvard Business Review’ recently reported on research by Dr. Jack Zenger, Dr. Joseph Folkman and others that shows it has become almost impossible to give high-level leaders unsolicited negative feedback because of conscious and unconscious defense mechanisms they have,” Smookler says. “Solicit feedback first from a couple of confidants and add to the feedback circle. The Covey Center’s figures and my own from delivering thousands of 360s confirm that only 20 percent of leaders are courageous enough to complete a 360˚-feedback tool. What gets measured gets worked on.”
By improving communication and most importantly, listening skills, a culture of good communication improves the bottom line in the long run. “If you’re not connecting with colleagues, then you’re missing that network of information and support you need to have to make better decisions about the direction of the company,” RoAne says. “If you make them feel important, that their opinions are valued, that they are valued — which takes time and conversation — you’ve got loyalty, retention and information. And that’s invaluable.”
10 Tips on how to be a Better Connector
Start with these tips from Gayle Cotton, Susan RoAne and Norm Smookler to improve listening and facilitate a culture of good communication.
Tip 1: Be an active listener.
“Focus on the speaker, listen for the message beneath the words, become a ‘people reader’ and assess the impact of body language and tonality,” Cotton advises. “Don’t make hasty judgments and don’t become impatient.”
Tip 2: Adapt your communication style.
“People at all levels like people who communicate similarly to them,” Cotton says. “Observe their style — are they direct, expressive or more subdued — and adapt your style to make them feel comfortable.”
Tip 3: Develop rapport.
“If you are dealing with people across borders, you need to know about other cultures and their communication styles,” Cotton says. “It can push you out of your comfort zone a bit. Think of former U.S. President George W. Bush holding hands with the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah as a sign of friendship and respect.”
Tip 4: Don’t jump to conclusions.
“Leaders are very good at arriving at conclusions but even they can arrive at a conclusion prematurely that may not be the best one at that time,” Cotton says. Ask reflective questions of a fellow employee to confirm your understanding.
Tip 5: Learn to interrupt politely.
When necessary, interrupt and lead the conversation without offending. “For example,” Cotton says, “I appreciate the importance of what you’re saying, however, because we have limited time, I suggest we move on to xyz.”
Tip 6: Invoke a two-minute rule.
“According to a study of physicians, the most accurate diagnosticians took a full two minutes to get to the root of the problem,” Smookler says. “Time yourself to see how well you listen and understand during that time period.”
Tip 7: Don’t forget the closer!
Cotton advises ending your conversation with a summary close to avoid miscommunication and to let the person know you’ve heard what he or she said.
Tip 8: Stow away all distractions.
“Nothing will make someone feel more important than saying, ‘Let me turn my cell off as I don’t want us to be disturbed,’” RoAne says.
Tip 9: Make yourself approachable.
“Lean into a conversation and extend your hand,” RoAne says. “A CEO I knew wore a Looney Tunes tie so his staff felt comfortable to come over and talk to him.”
Tip 10: Solicit feedback.
Start with a few close advisers who will tell you like it is. Test out a 360°-feedback tool to see how you are doing at all levels, Smookler advises.