As a leadership coach, I do a lot of listening. In addition to helping clients strengthen their listening skills, I frequently challenge myself to be an even better listener. I make it a priority because listening is the skill most highly correlated to leadership effectiveness.
During this extended period of volatility and uncertainty in our workplaces and lives, it may well be the leadership skill we need the most.
In reflecting on some of my most valuable ‘listening’ exercises, the work I have done internationally stands out. There, I typically work with leaders who speak a language I do not and enlist the help of an interpreter to facilitate our conversations.
While this approach makes our work possible, communications issues can, and do, occur. Challenging though this can be—especially when misunderstandings happen or nuances get lost—the work has helped me become a better listener.
When I consider the listening lessons that emerged, a few stand out. Perhaps most notably, a stark reminder of all the ways we really can listen, if we choose to pay attention.
While you may never find yourself communicating through an international translator, my key takeaways are useful for leaders who want to maximize their listening. Here are four of the ways you can focus your listening to boost this vital leadership skill:
Listening requires more than your ears
There is a real difference between hearing and listening. We hear with our ears but listen with our mind. This means, in a nutshell, that paying attention to your interpretation of what you’re hearing is what really matters.
Perhaps you have found yourself at the receiving end of a conversation with a distracted leader and know exactly what I mean. They may be hearing you, but they are not really listening. Rather, their mind and their attention are elsewhere—and they are not processing a word you are saying.
Or, under the erroneous belief that multitasking is possible, the leader may be trying to balance other tasks while ‘listening’ to you. As neuroscientists such as Daniel Levitin have confirmed, what we call multitasking is the brain’s fast-switching between tasks.
When a leader is attempting to listen while doing other things, they are only hearing and processing a few words from you while their brain keeps switching its focus. They may think they know what you are saying, but their attention is elsewhere.
In either of these cases, the result is a profound lack of effective communication. And at least one of you will likely be frustrated, feeling unheard.
To listen well, your mind must be part of the equation. Hearing the words, without active listening to process what is being said, is simply not enough.
Listen for words, and more
As listeners, we often pay significant attention to what is being said when we listen. We listen to the words and phrases and process the overall message we hear. Naturally, words are important; however, they are not the whole message. Nor are they the only way to listen.
In fact, when you listen for more than words, you can hear many other things that signal what the speaker may be communicating.
For example, tone of voice. Are they speaking softly or loudly? How about speed? Do you hear them speaking quickly and barely pausing to take a breath? Or perhaps struggling to express a thought?
In all of these cases, the sounds you can hear beyond the words being spoken provide important clues to enhance your listening. These include, for example, an indication of the speaker’s energy and overall demeanour, which can be a signal about how they may be feeling about the conversation or the topic at hand.
Do you sense enthusiasm or hesitation? Or are you picking up a sense of anxiety or perhaps even fear? If the speaker seems agitated, listen closely, and ask yourself: are they anxious about something that may be troubling them and unsure how to talk about it? Or are they feeling frustrated that they are not being heard?
When you are listening for more than words, these kinds of audible signals can help you add another layer to the quality of your listening. In the process, they provide important clues about what the speaker may really want you to understand or perhaps want you to discuss more thoroughly.
Pay attention to non-verbal cues
Another way of listening is to consider the non-verbal cues you are seeing or feeling.
Are you seeing someone looking forward to debating a potentially controversial decision, or someone who really is not ready to talk about an issue? Someone with a downcast gaze, for example, may be telling you they are not ready (or willing) to talk about something. They may be hesitant to ask for more time to work something through on their own, but hoping you are paying attention and are willing to offer it.
Non-verbal clues do not give you the whole picture, but if you are paying attention and listening for more than words, they will enhance your ability to listen well.
Non-verbal cues can help you ‘hear’ far more than what is or is not being said, enhancing your effectiveness as a listener and a leader.
Listen for the silence that can speak volumes
When you listen carefully for what is not being said, you can more fully appreciate when someone may be trying to communicate something but struggling to find or say the words. Attentive listeners who pick up on an unwillingness or inability to speak up can ask appropriate questions—whether to ask for more information, clarify a comment, or do a check in.
For example, by repeating back what you have just heard and asking if you have heard correctly, you can add a follow-up such as, ‘is there more?’ or “is there anything else you would like to say?’
By taking the time to engage in this kind of dialogue, leaders send a powerful signal of their interest and commitment to deep, attentive listening. In the process, they build connections and respect, as one of the leaders I coach discovered when he began to pace his own comments and give team members the space to feel comfortable sharing their own ideas.
Dedicating time for team input and dialogue is an especially important practice for leaders hosting so many virtual conversations right now. Online gatherings and team meetings require a certain amount of structure to flow productively; however, they also benefit from a degree of space for conversation. Leaders who do this regularly can deepen their own listening while modelling the practice for those they lead.
Using all levels of listening can help us become better listeners and better leaders. The kind of leaders who take time to be active, fully engaged listeners for the people they lead.
Listening fully and deeply speaks volumes about a leader’s interest in others and what they have to say. Leaders who listen this way connect readily to the people around them, especially those they lead.
You can achieve powerful leadership listening in each of these ways: paying attention to what you are hearing, listening for more than words, noticing non-verbal cues, and, finally, listening for the powerful spaces between words to hear what is not being said.
As you lean fully and wholeheartedly into this kind of listening, expect your effectiveness as a listener, and a leader, to rise.