10 ways for leaders to be better listeners now

More than ever, people need the psychological safety to share what's on their minds and to feel heard. Here's how to take your active listening skills to the next level
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Active, deep listening is a fundamental leadership skill – and a muscle that all leaders should be working on right now.

More teams are working remotely, removing non-verbal cues from the equation, and many professionals are struggling emotionally amid protests and the pandemic. More than ever, they need the psychological safety to share what’s on their minds and to know that their voices are heard and their thoughts and opinions matter.

Leaders can provide this by listening with focus and emotional intelligence. Like many other core soft skills, active listening can be improved upon with daily, intentional practice.

[ Read also: Goodbye soft skills, hello core skills: Why IT must rebrand this critical competency ]

Here are 10 tips and exercises to try:

1. Listen without an agenda

“Go into interactions with the goal of seeking to understand the other’s point of view. During this pandemic, we may all be in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. The goal of listening is understanding. This is critical, because understanding is the platform on which all future action depends."

"Park your own agenda. You can’t be open and curious if you’re thinking about your own needs and wants. It will increase your bandwidth to ask deeper questions, follow up more thoughtfully, and build a stronger connection with the other person. Great listening is a fast track to connection, and is one of the most visible ways of supporting others.” – Alain Hunkins, CEO of Hunkins Leadership Group and author of Cracking the Leadership Code

You can’t be open and curious if you’re thinking about your own needs and wants.

2. Learn what distracts you – and fix it

"To be a great listener, you need to know what distracts you and practice how to be here and now. For instance, if you feel like your phone takes away your attention, switch it to silent mode during one-on-one conversations. If you can’t resist flipping through web pages, reports, and files on your laptop, minimize what’s irrelevant and switch to the video call’s full-screen option."

"Practice visualizing the situations that are being described to you. If your employee describes a difficult client experience, imagine how this situation would look like in real life and picture yourself in the middle of it. This will keep your mind from wandering. If you are dealing with many employees, take notes. We remember only around 50 percent of what we are told immediately after the conversation." – Kuba Koziej, co-founder at Zety

[ Read also: 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ] 

3. Take a cue from parenting techniques

“Want to be a better listener? Read about the latest research on reflective parenting and classic books on effective parenting. Leaders and CEOs are much like parents to the company. They need to inspire, teach, and be a role model. But the best way for efficient communication is to be open to the concerns of your team. Don’t try to reject or beautify their concerns, their stress, and their worries. Don’t try to convince about your opinion without first understanding their worries."

"Reflective parenting shows that a parent who hears and reflects the feeling of a child can achieve better communication. Similarly, leaders that take time to reflect and understand the feelings and the worries of their team can achieve more efficient collaboration. Next time, you hear ‘this cannot be done,’ don’t try to convince that it can be done. Try first to hear why your co-worker thinks that cannot be done and then try to elaborate on why this is important to be done and why it is be beneficial for the team.” – Chris Kachris, CEO and co-founder of InAccel

4. Learn to meditate

“Learn to meditate. As part of my martial arts practice, I spend time meditating. Meditation has improved my listening skills because it’s taught me how to calm my mind. This allows me to focus on a single person or thought, which means that I’m better at giving someone my complete attention. It’s very easy to get distracted or attempt to interrupt when someone else is speaking. Meditation helps me to push my own thoughts away and concentrate on the value I’m receiving by listening well."

"It’s also very tempting to share your own story when someone has just told you about their experiences, adventures, or challenges. Don’t. It’s actually disrespectful when you flip things around to turn the attention on yourself. Resist the urge to go off on a tangent and simply listen to what they’re trying to tell you. Think about what questions you could ask instead, and remind yourself that you’re there to listen.” – Alex Azoury, founder and CEO of Home Grounds

5. Listen for emotions and energy

“In today’s pandemic and social upheaval landscape, powerful listening is rocket fuel for a leader, helping them meet their employees and teams where they are and more effectively navigate and succeed. Listen for emotions and energy, and spotlight them. Many executives consider listening as only cognitive listening, i.e. listening for words and content. Active and deep listening is also about listening for emotions and energy. Listening for emotion and energy helps you set the context for what is being said and also helps you signal that you understand and appreciate what the other is experiencing.” – Shefali Raina, founder and executive coach, Alpha Lane Partners

Let's examine five more tips to boost your listening skills:

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.