How to Lead by Improving Your Listening Skills

In Communication Skills by Jamie Turner1 Comment

If you’re like a lot of executives reading this, you’re interested in learning how to do a better job leading yourself and leading others.

Most articles and blog posts about leadership focus on communication skills. In other words, they focus on persuasion, articulation, and messaging. Don’t get us wrong — communication skills are important. But learning how to listen is just as important (if not more so) than learning how to communicate.

You can be a Good Leader by Being a Good Listener

Being a good leader involves a lot of things, including having empathy, confidence, and focus. In fact, those topics are just some of the things built into the Four Pillars of Leadership discussed in the Unspoken Rules workshops I conduct around the globe. (See image below, which highlights the Four Pillars of Leadership.)

But in order to be a good leader, you have to have much more than just empathy, confidence, and focus. You also have to have good listening skills.

A recent article from Harvard Business Review by three experts on listening highlights what it means to have good listening skills.

The challenge most of us face is that we have a default way we listen to people. We may think we’re doing a good job listening, but in many cases, we might just be pretending to listen until we find a point where we can insert our next comment or point-of-view.

That’s not listening. That’s waiting for the other person to stop talking so that we can pontificate for a little longer.

Listening Styles You Might be Using

Understanding how you listen is an important part of being a good co-worker, manager, or mentor.

It turns out there are four different styles most leaders use.

If you’re an analytical listener, you aim to analyze a problem from a neutral starting point.

If you’re a relational listener, you aim to build connections and understand the emotions underlying the message.

If you’re a critical listener, you aim to judge both the content of the conversation and the reliability of the speaker themselves.

And if you’re a task-focused listener, you shape the conversation towards efficient transfer of important information.

The best leaders (and listeners) all have one thing in common — they develop the ability to shift between these styles based on the task at hand.

That’s not easy to do, but it’s an essential part of being a good leader and being a good listener.

Five Ways to Improve Your Listening

The research shared in Harvard Business Review highlights five different ways you can improve your listening skills.

Here they are.

  • Establish why you’re listening: When you first enter a conversation, pause for a moment and reflect briefly on what the goals of the conversation are and how you can best listen in that moment. Is the person you’re having a conversation with seeking an honest critique, an analytical reflection, or an emotional connection? If you pause for a moment at the beginning of the conversation and ask yourself, “What are my goals here?” you’ll end up being more thoughtful about your responses. (As Viktor Frankl says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”)
  • Recognize how you usually listen: Our default listening style might actually be sabotaging our goals. In our previous experiences, we might have received positive feedback for being efficient, funny, articulate, or supportive. As HBR reports, “Time-pressured environments often require task-oriented or critical listening styles in order to make rapid decisions. While that may be consistently effective at work, it may backfire when applied frequently at home to family and friends who may need something more than rapid decision support.” So remember — look inward at your own listening style before engaging with someone who may need you to shift styles for a moment.
  • Be aware of who is the focus of attention: “We often assume that interjecting with our own personal stories is an empathetic and relationship-building move, but it precludes hearing the other’s whole message,” says the Harvard Business Review. The article goes on to say, “While it can be fun to interject, and is sometimes helpful to promote connection, when done without awareness it runs the risk of steering the conversation away from the speaker without redirecting back.” (That’s a powerful idea and one I know I need to spend more time on.)
  • Adapt the listening style to achieve conversational goals: It’s not easy adapting your listening style. Your brain at work is under stress and focused on a lot of different things. But staying focused on the speaker and the goals will help you adapt to the needs of the situation. An easy way to remember how to do this is by thinking about your goals (e.g., relational, transactional, informational, etc.) and thinking about the person you’re speaking to (e.g., boss, employee, spouse, child, etc.)
  • Ask: Am I missing something? As HBR reports, “It may be hard to ascertain the conversational goals if the speaker who initiates the conversation does not know what they are hoping to get out of it. Ambiguity about goals, uncertainty about sharing vulnerability, unexamined emotions, and logistical pressures may be part of the discovery process. Because we profoundly shape this process through the ways in which we listen, we should consider whether the conversation at hand seems to be productive and what we may be missing. Taking a couple of seconds to pause and think before an automatic response may help reveal a subtler, important opportunity.”

The Bottom Line on Improving Listening Skills

People in my industry (leadership development training) spend a lot of time talking about communication skills, but communication skills training is often focused on persuasion, articulation, and messaging. Instead, we should be teaching people how to listen as much as we teach them how to talk. The tips above are designed to help you improve your listening skills — which can come in handy at the office, and at home.

About the Author: Jamie Turner is an internationally recognized author, professor, consultant, and speaker who has helped employees at The Coca-Cola Company, Holiday Inn, Microsoft, Verizon and others do a better job leading, managing, and mentoring others. You may have seen Jamie in Inc., Entrepreneur, Business Insider, or Forbes. He’s also a regular guest on CNN and HLN, where he delivers segments on marketing, persuasion, and leadership. Jamie is the co-author of several essential business books and his YouTube channel was designated one of the “Top 10 Business YouTube Channels” in the nation by 

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