Being a great listener is one of the foundations of successful leadership communication, along with the ability to straight talk. Knowing how to listen requires a genuine interest in other people, which, in turn, is essential for leading with empathy.
Skillful listening can be learned, with time and patience. For now, let’s look at what it means and the difference it makes.
The Two Levels of Listening
There are two levels of listening, and only one of them will make your leadership communication effective (and make you a great leader).
This is when we are seemingly engaged in conversation with someone but in reality, we are paying more attention to the chatting in our head.
- We could be thinking something that we are unwilling to communicate honestly to the other person (like, “I don’t think she can handle this issue”)
- We could be distracted by thoughts that have nothing to do with the conversation (like, “what should I have for lunch today?” or “if I get through this call quickly, I can get back to more important work.”)
- We could just be waiting for our interlocutor to finish talking so we can rebut their comment.
All these are examples of poor leadership communication because we are not present or engaged in the conversation. It doesn’t matter if the self-talk is about the conversation; focusing on it might cause us to miss important perspectives being shared by the other party. Worse, it tells the other person that we don’t care about what they have to say.
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 makes for good leadership communication. When we practice it, we are more open and likely to arrive at a solution that had not occurred to either party before the conversation started.
Learning To Listen As a Leadership Communication Skill
After a team development workshop focused on communication, Donnie – the business unit leader for a fast-paced startup – realized he needed to become a better listener. 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.
Now he turns off his monitor and puts his phone face down when talking to others. When he goes to meetings and interviews, he leaves his phone behind in his office. The difference is 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.
Incidentally, Donnie has also changed his home/evening routine to be more present for his family. 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.
On To You
Make an honest assessment of your leadership communication skills. How often do you do first-level listening? How often are you really present and engaged in the conversation?
Next time you catch yourself drifting away:
- 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 sharpen your communication skills? Let’s talk.