Are you a Listening Leader?

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Listening is something that is not taught in Leadership Programs. It’s not a skill listed in our job description. I’ve never heard it discussed in company values or the behaviors that support those values.

Yet, a good listening leader creates trustworthy relationships that are transparent and inspire loyalty. It also creates a listening team that breeds creativity and innovation. I mean come on, isn’t that what you want? Shouldn’t those be aspirations we all want?

There’s a lot of reasons why we don’t listen in the workplace. It’s no different if you are a team member or team leader. I’m not saying they are good reasons, they are excuses really, but they are there. I have a saying that I use with my family that is almost always met with grumbles.

I will hear, “I’m not trying to do that or I’m not purposely being…whatever”. My response is usually, “Yeah, and you aren’t trying to do it correctly either.” See what I mean, it’s not one of my family’s favorite bits about me.

But it lies true. If you let a distraction keep you from listening, it’s not a mistake. You are choosing to pay attention to the distraction and not the speaker. The best way to understand the choices you are making is to understand why you aren’t listening.

So, let’s go over a few:

1. Being distracted. This can be that you were in the middle of something and you were interrupted. Or that you have a packed day and all you can think about is ticking items off your list. Maybe you have a big problem or something major that is taking your focus. Whatever it is, it’s still a choice to put that aside and listen to the speaker. Instead of having that internal dialog that is telling you that this meeting is taking too long and you have so much to do, look at the speaker and pay attention to what they are saying.

2. Previous bias. This can stem from not having a great prior relationship or that you don’t value the other person’s input. You might have a bias because they are simply a difficult person. Maybe one who constantly has to have something to say or the last word. In my experience, these are usually people who feel insecure and you are just adding to the problem by constantly pushing them aside. They simply want to be heard. To be a good listening leader, you must put your bias aside because everyone has a good idea at some point. And if you nurture that relationship, they may have some brilliant ideas. They also will learn that you are going to listen to what they have to say, so they will feel more confident and make better decisions on when to contribute and when not to.

3. You are disengaged. There are many different ways that we choose not to listen and I went back and forth on if I should include this one. I chose to include it because I’ve seen many managers or bosses get so overwhelmed with all they feel they need to do, the stresses of being in charge of others while also having quite a lot on their own plate. Then if you roll in some things going wrong, often these managers retreat because they don’t know where to start. When you are in this mode, you start a pretty dangerous spiral where you disengage yourself from everything. While this one needs a larger conversation (a different article maybe??), I think it’s important that if this is you, that you recognize it and ask for help. This is a bigger problem than not listening to your people.

So what is a Listening Leader? We’ve all heard of active listening and I think there’s a lot of different opinions on what active listening is and what it’s comprised of. I can only tell you what I think it is and what works for me.

Active listening means that we try to understand things from the other person’s point of view. And that you are listening for shared understanding, where the other person or people feel heard. It includes letting the speaker know that we are listening and that we have understood what was said.

When we make a decision to listen for total meaning, we listen for the content of what is being said as well as the attitude behind what is being said. Are they happy, angry, excited, sad or something else entirely?

I also think it’s important that you respond to their feelings. Now, I’m not saying that you match their emotions. It’s not a good idea to meet anger with anger, but you can respond to that anger so they know you are listening.

The spoken word is one thing, but the way that people feel really gives full value to the message. Responding to the other person’s feelings adds an extra dimension of listening. Are they disgusted and angry or happy and excited? Perhaps they are ambivalent. By being patient and giving them time to work through the emotion while speaking, you will really get to the heart of the matter.

What do I mean by “responding to those feelings”? You can do so through acknowledgment, “I can see you are upset” or “This really excites you, huh?”. If you are unsure if you are reading them correctly, maybe it’s a statement like “I feel like I’m not reaching you. Am I missing something?” These kinds of statements show that you are not only hearing them, but you are also acknowledging them.

Lastly, you need to demonstrate that you are listening. When you are listening to someone, using physical and verbal cues will show the other person that you are paying attention, assuming you are genuine in using them.

There are physical cues that include making eye contact, nodding your head from time to time, and leaning into the conversation.

You can also give verbal cues or use phrases such as “Uh-huh,” “Go on,” “Really!” and, “Then what?”. This demonstrates that you are clued in to what they are saying.

And then you can use questions for clarification or summarizing statements. These are simply questions to make sure you understand or to show that you were paying attention. Summarizing statements work just the same. Basically you are summarizing what you both have said, I hear your problem and this is how you need help.

I am sure there are some of you rolling your eyes or just feeling like you don’t have the time to listen to everyone on your team. The problem with that is that your team is not going to go away. If they can’t talk to you, they WILL talk to someone else. What will that do for your reputation, growth, and longevity as a manager? If they don’t talk to others, then they will feel undervalued and start looking for a different job. You will lose good people. So, tell me again how not listening is the better choice?

In the end, all of these listening techniques can only start when you recognize that you are choosing not to listen. Once you turn yourself around and choose to take the time to hear your team and be a Listening Leader, then you open the doors to a creative, innovative and productive team. And nothing reduces the stress of a Leader more than having a productive team.

Be a Connected Leader.