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Want to be a Great Leader? Become a Great Listener

Thoughts on effective leadership

Being successful in business requires the ability to consider many different perspectives in order to make solid decisions that will create long-standing solutions. That means that becoming a great listener might just be the most important skill to master if you want to be a great leader.

That’s good news because listening is easy enough…or is it? How many of us can honestly say we truly listen, 100% of the time? Fact is, in this fast-paced world, listening has become surprisingly challenging.  Let’s look at what it means to be a great listener.

The Two Levels of Listening

There are two levels of listening and only one of them will make you a great listener (and a great leader).

LEVEL I

The first level is when we are listening to our self-talk:

  • When we are seemingly engaged in a conversation with someone else but in reality, we are listening to the conversation playing out in our head. It could be something we are thinking but are unwilling to communicate honestly to the other person (like, “I don’t think she can handle this issue”) or something completely different from the conversation that’s going on (like, “what should I have for lunch today?” or “if I get through this call quickly, I can get back to more important work.”)
  • When we are too focused on our response and we are just waiting for our interlocutor to finish talking so we can rebut their comment.

In all of these cases, we are not present or engaged in the conversation because we are paying more attention to the chatting in our head. It doesn’t matter if the self-talk is about the conversation; it is still a distracting force that might cause us to miss important perspectives being shared by the other party.

LEVEL II

In the second level of listening, we are truly engaged in the conversation with the other person. Our attention is only on them and what they are saying. In this scenario:

  • We listen objectively and with curiosity;
  • We respect the other person’s point of view and are willing to consider it;
  • We ask questions without a self-serving or preset agenda and are open to new ideas, even ones that don’t match our perspective.

This is the kind of listening that great leaders practice constantly; it makes us more open and likely to arrive at a solution that had not occurred to either party before the conversation started.

Learning To Listen

After a team development workshop focused on communication, Donnie – the business unit leader for a fast-paced startup – realized he needed to be more available to his team. He was used to always having one eye on the email on his computer or phone while talking to people, never really present for the conversation.

He committed to changing and becoming a better listener. He decided he would turn off his monitor and put his phone face down whenever he had to have a talk with someone.  When he goes to meetings and interviews, he now leaves his phone behind in his office.

The differences are noticeable to everyone on his team. Following his lead, his direct reports have adopted the same approach. As a result, meetings are more efficient and the team is able to get to the root of the matter faster without wasting time.

Donnie has also changed his home/evening routine to be more present for his family.  Instead of rushing through dinner with an eye towards his phone and then getting back in front of his laptop, he now leaves his devices in his briefcase for two hours for dinner and his kid’s homework.  He told his staff that he’s available if they need him from 9pm to midnight but won’t respond before that time.  His family life has improved because of it. 

Your Turn

How good are you at listening? Do you mostly do first level listening?

Pay attention to your listening patterns. Next time you catch yourself drifting away from a conversation:

  • Acknowledge what’s happened and re-focus on the conversation.
  • If you realize you’ve missed part of what the person was saying, politely acknowledge that with them and ask them to repeat it.

Don’t be afraid to do so. It is much better than pretending you have heard them.

Want to become a great listener and great leader? Let’s talk

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