If you were to take an informal survey of friends or colleagues on the qualities of a good leader, I suspect you would get responses such as integrity, vision, passion, creativity and great communicator. While all these attributes are important, the most critical one would often not be named; listener.
Listening, and its corollary, good questioning, are the most important qualities of great leader and the most underrated. In my experience as a coach it is often the most underused skill. Listening, really listening to people, without prejudice is not an easy behavior to practice. Too busy, too focused on our own agenda we think we are listening, but we are only looking the part. Don’t think that is true for you?
How often are you crafting your response, marshalling your arguments to get your point across? Or thinking about your next meeting or what you need to get done next? We are all guilty of not listening. However with practice, you can elevate your leadership listening skills.
Here are a few simple steps to build your competence as a good listener. Be a STAR.
Take time to listen
Ask open-ended questions
Reflect back what was said
Slow down. How effective a listener can you be if you are always on the run, trying to listen while looking over forms, reports or checking your phone for text messages or emails. Not only are you not fully engaged in what the other person has to say, you are signaling that you and what you are doing are more important than anything the person has to say. Such behavior doesn’t inspire trust. Without trust, how are you going to get all the good ideas and information needed out in the open to achieve the exceptional performance you want from your team?
Take time. Stopping to really listen and find an environment in which you can give someone your full attention does take time. But a small investment of your part reaps significant results later. Clear the decks of all the clutter in your mind so you can focus on the person, their body language, facial expression, words and tone. Studies show that 90% of communication happens non-verbally. If you are not really listening, which includes seeing the body language and facial expressions, you will miss the 90%. Would you accept a failure rate of 90%? I thought not.
Ask open-ended questions after you have had time to process what you heard and saw. Powerful questions such as “Tell me more”, or “really” or “What is the impact”. After asking your question, don’t try and put words in the person’s mouth by answering the question yourself. Let the person know if you are not seeing their point, it is hard to remove preconceived ideas and assumptions.
Reflect back what was said, summarize. Use the person’s words as much as you can. If you do not receive a confirmatory “yes” (with a corresponding head nod) to the points you are summarizing, ask more questions until you get to yes. You now know more about an issue, idea, and your colleague; knowledge that will garner trust for you as a leader and lead to exceptional performance.
To get you started, use the STAR tool to measure your progress in building your listening (and questioning) skills. To inspire you, I leave you with this quote.
Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable-and one of the least understood. Most captains of industry listen only sometimes, and they remain ordinary leaders. But a few, the great ones, never stop listening. That’s how they get word before anyone else of unseen problems and opportunities.
By Andrew Clapton