In a recent study by leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman, leaders who expressed a preference for listening over speaking were ranked as much more effective in a number of competencies by their peers. These not only include go-to skills like relationship-building and communicating, but also things like innovation, professional expertise and integrity. Listening, it seems, is the skill all other leadership skills are borne from.
And, like so many other skills, effective listening is something that can be learned. Here are some tips for being a better listener, and how you can listen to become a better leader.
Prepare to listen, not just to speak. We all do it. A big meeting is coming up and we want to impress. We arrive with an agenda in mind. We have pre-rehearsed thoughts and ideas we want to express to show how engaged and prepared we are. Yet, rather than first taking in what others have to say and tailoring our ideas based on new information, we sit in silent rehearsal, waiting for our turn to talk.
What we so often think of as preparedness is actually robbing us of the opportunity to learn from our colleagues’ real-time insights and knowledge. The result? We offer yesterday’s ideas instead of listening and engaging with what’s happening today. Coming to meetings prepared is always a great plan. But coming to meetings prepared to listen and collaborate is what will bring the best, most impressive ideas to light.
Make the time you spend as a listener count. We’re all in a hurry these days, traveling around on business trips and stuck in endless meetings. For example, in healthcare doctors and caregivers are incredibly busy and do their best to solve problems in too little time. But while we can’t create more hours in the day, we can make the time we do have count.
When people feel rushed and unheard, they often feel inadequate. It’s difficult for people to move on from those moments and go on to feel empowered and motivated to do their best work. Which is why it’s critical that we are active in our listening, and intent on understanding what the other person is telling us.
Doctors and business leaders alike need to use their time to create sacred moments of listening. That means putting our own concerns about what we’re working on next on the back burner for a set amount of time in order to be more present in the moment. Try to find ways to actively listen that work for you, whether that’s taking notes on a piece of paper, or taking a moment afterward to mentally review your conversation. When we signal to those around us that their ideas are important, we can build more productive professional relationships.
Listen to gain context about a person, not just to hear what they’re saying.
Everyone has their own point of view. Their own biases, agendas and needs. And, while it can be complicated to take everyone’s individual preferences into account at every meeting and working session, having a grasp of who those around you are as individuals, and what motivates them, is critical for any leader.
Listening is not the same as having an answer. Listening and problem-solving are two different things, and one necessarily has to come before the other. As much pressure as we feel to be “on” as leaders, coming up with great solutions to every problem, we’ll often get to a better outcome if we just listen for a while.
In any professional or personal setting, letting your mind race for answer can distract you from focusing on what someone is communicating, especially if they are voicing a concern or raising a sensitive topic. Instead of responding with a hastically conceived solution (or a response that’s drawn from emotion instead of thoughtful analysis), first let them know you’ve heard them, absorbed what they said, and that you’re considering it. Taking as much time as you need before offering an answer—or being transparent about the fact that there might not be a clear solution— doesn’t signal that you’re not engaged leader, but in fact does the opposite.