How to be a better listener: 5 steps

Active listening, an essential leadership skill, goes hand-in-hand with emotional intelligence. Here’s how to really hear what others are saying
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When you’re a CIO, there’s no shortage of folks knocking on your door waiting to be heard – direct reports, staff members, C-level peers, business unit leaders, suppliers and strategic parters, your boss, or even board members. Each person seeks an audience for their problem, pitch, question, critique, or request. In many cases, these discussions may be emotionally charged. And many of them could push the limits of anyone’s patience.

That’s why one of the most important skills a CIO can hone is listening – and that means not simply hearing someone out and delivering a reflexive answer or response, but purposely considering what that person is saying.

Great listeners make better leaders because listening makes others feel recognized and appreciated and builds trust. That, in turn, can lead to benefits like increased alignment with company goals, better performance and productivity, and greater innovation.

“Active listening is one of the most valuable skills any leader can have,” says Don Rheem, author of Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience that Drives High-Performance Cultures and CEO of E3 Solutions, a provider of employee workplace metrics and manager training. “Active listening validates the speaker simply because you are present with them in the moment. It creates a felt sense of safety when the speaker is allowed to share the context and facts as they see them without fear of judgement, derision, or being ignored. Active listening also empowers the speaker as their voice is heard and understood.”

[ Do you communicate effectively? See 12 bad communication habits to break in IT. ]

CIOs can build their active listening prowess like any other leadership skill: by committing to and practicing a few keys skills in their day-to-day interactions with everyone from subordinates to the chairman of the board. Consider these five must-do's:

1. Create the right physical environment

 When someone wants to discuss an issue or idea, don’t do it in the cafeteria at lunchtime or in a busy hallway. “Find a quiet place that minimizes distractions,” advises Rheem. “Turn cell phones to silent, laptops to sleep mode, and try to ensure there will be no interruptions during your conversation.”

2. Prepare mentally

Don’t go into the conversation cold – but don’t bring too much baggage along either. “Review what facts you already know about the conversation topic and leave assumptions behind,” Rheem says. “Keep in mind you likely do not know everything about the subject, and be open when the speaker shares information. Unconscious bias is hard to detect in ourselves, but it is always there.”

“Take note of the speaker’s body language along with what is actually being said. Does it align with their message? Does it clash?”

3. Receive the message in full

As much as possible, let the other person talk without interruption at their own pace. This shows them that you are interested in and care about what they are sharing. “Take note of [the speaker’s] body language along with what is actually being said,” says Rheem. “Does it align with their message? Does it clash?” Also, attempt to identify any internal “filters” you may have that could interfere with or skew your interpretation of the message being delivered.

4. Review and round out the message

 Measure the credibility of what you are hearing by identifying any assumptions made and deciphering opinion versus fact. A good way to approach this step is with curiosity, says Rheem. Ask the speaker to add more context or detail, using language such as, “Tell me more about what happened after you discovered the mistake” or “I think I heard you say X; is that correct?”

5. Thoughtfully respond to the speaker

Consider what type of response is most appropriate given the information you have received. The response does not necessarily need to be a clear decision or course of action. It might be any of these:

  • Brainstorming new ideas
  • Deciding between multiple options
  • Offering practical or emotional support
  • Giving guidance (only if explicitly requested)
  • Providing a straightforward, supportive answer

When responding, use language that validates (I see your point.) and that shows that you understand (That makes sense to me.) or empathize (I would be angry, too, if that happened to me.).

“A foundational element of active listening is to demonstrate that you hear and understand their message at a deeper level than a simple nod of the head,” says Rheem. “It is okay to acknowledge someone’s view and feelings without agreeing with them. Understand first, resolve second.”

[ You're on your way to better EQ. Read also: 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

For all responses, be respectful, positive, and honest. Never judge, demean, or criticize. If you feel ill-equipped to manage the situation, consider including another trusted party or recommend another individual for the employee to speak with who may be better suited to help.

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.