Listen Your Way to Better Leadership

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

You don’t listen and that’s impacting your relationships, your ability to build trust, influence others, and be the leader you want to be.

Listening is frequently misunderstood. Listening and hearing are not the same. You might hear a person’s voice, but that doesn’t mean you understand what the person is saying. Simply put, listening is the ability to receive and interpret information. So often what we think is listening is really not anything close to it.

I’m sure you’ve heard that you need to “Actively Listen,” which assumes “Passive Listening” exists. Listening is always active — there is no such thing as passive listening. If you’re not paying attention, then you’re not listening. Listening takes attention and engagement, and it is always active. Anything other than this type of engagement is just hearing sounds.

Listening is one of the most underestimated and underutilized leadership tools. It doesn’t cost you anything and can help you improve nearly every aspect of your life. Listening well improves relationships and relationships are necessary in all areas of our life. That means building trust and confidence with employees, clients, and other key stakeholders in the workplace. This trust encourages loyalty. That developed confidence means productivity and profitability. Outside the workplace, listening could possibly be the answer to all the world’s problems (more on that later).

Yet for such a powerful tool, it’s not taught in school. We need a “How to Listen” class that is taught each year, so we’d be advanced listeners by the time we graduated. Just think how much different the world would be if we actually listened to each other!

Instead, “How to Fake Listening” is indirectly taught, with students often just being told to “Pay attention!” or “Listen!” without being given tools, and then mistaking regurgitation for comprehension or understanding, when it is none of these things.

Listening is not about you.

Thich Nhat Hanh – a Buddhist teacher, poet, scholar, and peace activist believed listening was the path to world peace.

“The most important thing is that we need to be understood. We need someone to be able to listen to us and understand us. Then we will suffer less. But everyone is suffering, and no one wants to listen. We don’t know how to express ourselves so that people can understand. Because we suffer so much, the way we express our pain hurts other people, and they don’t want to listen. Listening is a very deep practice. You have to empty yourself. You have to leave space in order to listen… When you have shown your capacity for listening and understanding, the other person will begin to listen to you, and you have a chance to tell him or her of your pain, and it’s your turn to get healed. This is the practice of peace.”

It’s not about what you hear, as that is only a part of listening. The most important outcome of listening is how the other person feels when talking to you. The most important questions you need to answer yes to when listening, are:

• Does the person in front of you, sharing their thoughts, feel heard and seen by you listening?

• Can you articulate back what was just said in a meaningful way, not just repeating the words, but summarizing in a way that demonstrates meaning?

• Are you building a deeper relationship with each word shared?

If you can’t definitively answer yes to the above, then you need to practice listening.

If you’re thinking, “I’m not working on world peace, I’m just trying to get [insert project here] done with this person.” Then think about it this way, each person you listen to is an opportunity for them to be seen and heard, which is an opportunity to build understanding and trust on an individual level. This just might lead to world peace if we all do it (especially with those with whom we don’t agree). At a minimum, it’ll improve your working relationship and will at least keep the peace between the two of you.

If you’re a manager, then know that listening improves engagement. Research firm Gallup discovered that employees whose managers held regular meetings with them were almost three times as likely to be engaged at work than their counterparts who had no regular meetings. (Engagement was highest among employees who had daily communication with their managers.) Additionally, Gallup’s study revealed that employees valued communication, not just about their roles and responsibilities, but also in their lives outside of work.

What gets in the way of listening

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen Covey

Lots of things can get in the way of listening. You could be tired, unable to focus, or easily distracted because you’re hungry. Maybe a train wreck is slowly happening in front of you, so you no longer hear your spouse talking in the car. Regardless of what it is, it is likely due to two primary reasons:

  1. You don’t comprehend and remember as much as you think you do.

Your brain can think 3x faster than most people can talk. This means there is leftover mental capacity while you’re attempting to listen. If you are not actively focused on the person, then it is easy for the mind to wander, which is when listening stops.

Research at the University of Minnesota, substantiated by Florida State University and Michigan State University studies, showed that the average person only remembers about 50% of what is heard – no matter how carefully he thought he was listening. Within eight hours the average person tends to forget from one-half to one-third. After two months the average person will remember only about 25% of what was said. We tend to forget more initially than we do over six months.

  1. Your emotions affect your ability to listen.

According to researchers Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens, you mentally turn off what you don’t want to hear and if someone says what you want to hear, you accept everything including half-truths or fiction. Our emotions act as a filter, sometimes causing deafness and other time making listening almost too easy.

“If we hear something that opposes our most deeply rooted prejudices, notions, convictions, mores, or complexes, our brains may become over-stimulated, and not in a direction that leads to good listening. We mentally plan a rebuttal to what we hear, formulate a question designed to embarrass the talker, or perhaps simply turn to thoughts that support our own feelings on the subject at hand.”

Keep these two points in mind the next time you think you heard everything a person said.

Listening is NOT just about what’s spoken.

To make listening even more challenging, there tends to be more emphasis put on the spoken content of a message, but that is not how we derive meaning. Albert Mehrabian concluded that the meaning of a message is determined by the 7/38/55 Communication Rule, which is:

7% spoken word
38% tone of voice
55% body language

On an unconscious level, what is actually spoken isn’t taken into consideration nearly as much as the tone of voice and body language. This really becomes apparent when there is misalignment between the verbal (spoken word) part of a message and the nonverbal (tone and body language) part of the message, which can lead to misunderstanding.

If you’re the talker, it’s important to be self-aware of what mixed messages you might be conveying.

If you’re the receiver and the message seems confusing, get curious about what’s going on, and clarify with the talker.

Phone beats Video: Listen and stop looking

If you’re like me, then in this WFH, post-lockdown age, you’re not totally excited about meetings on video becoming the default. You miss the phone being the default. This is because I honestly feel I’m better on the phone versus video, besides it saving my energy (zoom fatigue is real), I can better hear someone shift emotionally when I don’t have visual cues and am only listening to their voice.

This study by Dr. Michael Kraus of Yale University, whose research was published by the American Psychological Association confirms what I’ve been feeling for the past 8 years. “Our research suggests that relying on a combination of vocal and facial cues, or solely facial cues, may not be the best strategy for accurately recognizing emotions or intentions of others.” What does he suggest instead? Listening carefully. Those who only listened, more accurately identified the emotions experienced by others.

One theory for this is that you’ve learned to mask visual cues about your emotions, meaning you put on a “poker face” if you’re upset. But you haven’t learned to mask the tone of your voice, which is subtle, but recognizable (especially to a trained ear such as myself).

How to practice listening – Tips

Listening takes engagement. Not just hearing the other person but asking questions and summarizing what you’ve heard to confirm you have the correct meaning before moving on.

Depending on what gets in the way of listening, you’ll likely need to develop different muscles to improve. Here are a few tips to practice so you can be on the road to stellar listening:

• Pay attention to what typically gets in your way. If you are easily distracted, then take steps to limit the distractions such as putting your phone away or turning off notifications on your computer.

• Assume you don’t understand until you hear confirmation from the other person that you got it right. Periodically review and mentally summarize the points of the talking thus far. Then check in with the person talking to confirm you have it right.

• Learn to check in with yourself and recognize your “state.” If you’re not “open,” then listening won’t happen.

• Understand what drives and triggers you and how others perceive it.

• Observe the impact of your emotions on others and vice versa.

• Practice “stepping into their shoes” and exploring others’ perspectives.

• Collect the evidence to support the points made so far and ask yourself if it’s complete or what else needs to be known.

• Listen between the lines of what is being said to find meaning in the unspoken. Pay attention to the nonverbal to see if it adds meaning to the spoken word.

• Withhold evaluation – this requires self-management – so you can be open to comprehending each point made by the talker. Save judgment and decision until the end, after lots of curiosity and careful assessment.

• Hunt for negative evidence – too often when listening we unconsciously just hunt for evidence to prove our own righteous point, instead of searching for evidence that proves us wrong. If we make up our minds to look for ideas that might prove us wrong, as well as those that might prove us right, we are less likely to miss what people have to say.

• If emotions are getting in the way of you listening to the other person, then ask to take a pause so you can take care of yourself. Then schedule a time you can try listening again. Trying to listen to someone while emotionally flooded is futile.

• If things are getting escalated with someone but you’re not talking live, get off email, slack, text, or whatever you’re on and reach out directly (phone or video) once emotions are cooler.

If you want a partner to help you improve your listening so you can build relationships, increase your influence, and be the impactful leader you dream of being, I’m here for you.