How active listening can make you a better leader

Listening is one of the most powerful tools you possess as a leader – and can help build trust and loyalty with your team. Consider these expert tips to become an engaged, active listener
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In today’s digital workplace, listening can be harder than ever. We are continuously inundated with waves of information battling for our attention. Just as you’re collecting your thoughts from one meeting, you’re heading straight into the next.

Listening is one of the most powerful tools you possess as a leader. It helps you build trust and foster loyalty. It lets others know that they are important to you and that you value what they have to say.

Unfortunately, many leaders don’t carry this awareness and never learned how to effectively listen. In fact, less than two percent of all professionals have had formal training to improve their listening skills.

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How to be an active listener: 5 tips

As technology leaders, we need to embrace the practice of active listening. This practice centers around engaging with your employees to the point of being fully immersed in what they have to say. Our goal is to understand. When we make active listening part of our everyday routine, we build trust, loyalty, and strong relationships.

Let’s look at the elements that go into active listening and explore how it can make you a more effective leader.

1. Silence the world

Every IT leader I know is insanely busy – it goes with the territory. But that frantic pace comes at a cost: It’s difficult to be fully present and give another person your focus when your attention is frayed between multiple competing priorities.

When you let the world intrude on a conversation, you unconsciously tell the other person that they are less important than the things around them. Instead, with every interaction strive to make a connection and show people the respect they deserve. To do this, start by limiting distractions. That means closing your laptop, muting your phone, and parking work problems at the door so you can focus and engage with this person in this moment. Of the hundreds of things littering your calendar, is any one of them more important than leading your team?

2. Seek to understand before being understood

This concept comes from Stephen R. Covey’s bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. At its essence, it means we should listen with purpose.

In our normal daily interactions, most of us are just waiting for our turn to talk – angling for an open space in the conversation where we can steer the discussion where we want it to go. But when we do this, we devalue what the other person is saying. We aren’t truly hearing them. How can you help someone with their problem if you don’t understand what their problem is?

It requires patience to listen with purpose. Break out of the cycle of formulating a response while the other person is still in mid-thought. Instead, take the time to listen to the undercurrent of what they are saying. People rarely share everything that’s on their minds, but if you are mindful, you can usually read between the lines. It’s not only their words that tell the story. What is their body language saying? What facial cues are you noticing? Seek to fully unpack what is going on so you can provide the empathy and support your employees need.

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

3. Show engagement

It’s not enough simply to silence the world. Show the person that you are listening intently through your responses and body language: Make eye contact and provide brief verbal affirmations or nod, modulating the tone of your voice as well as mirroring their body mannerisms. Paraphrasing what the other person is saying can also be a helpful tool to show you understand or are seeking clarity. When you take time to validate what someone is saying, they will feel comfortable sharing more.

It’s also important to ask powerful questions. These should be open-ended questions where you push the other party to dive deeper for greater understanding:

  • “Why do you think that?”
  • “How do you see that working?”
  • “Can you expand on that point?”

Curiosity should fuel these questions, and each response should help you more clearly understand the problem or situation. Thoughtful questions show the other person that you are engaged in the discussion and open to hearing what they have to say. At the same time, read your audience and be mindful that some questions may push boundaries inappropriately. Be prepared to reshape or bail out of a question when necessary and assure the other person that it’s okay not to pursue that path. 

Thoughtful questions show the other person that you are engaged in the discussion and open to hearing what they have to say.

4. Free yourself of judgment

With active listening, it’s critical that your employees feel free to speak their minds. To facilitate this, refrain from interrupting their train of thought, don’t be too quick to offer advice, and leave judgment out of the conversation – these are surefire ways to shut down open and honest communication.

Interrupting signals to the other person that you aren’t actually listening. It says, “I’ve already formed my opinion and I don’t care what the rest of your thought is.” Interruption breeds disengagement, which you must avoid. When you introduce judgment into the conversation, you discount the other person’s style or approach. Just because someone doesn’t think the way you do doesn’t mean they are wrong – their point of view is just different from yours. When you embrace those differences, you can lead people where they are at instead of forcing them into a model you are comfortable with.

5. Nurture the habit

It’s great to develop awareness around becoming an active listener, but the key is to put those measures into practice. This requires practicing active listening and forming new habits through your interactions with others.

For your next meeting, plan some ways to deliberately practice active listening techniques, and make a habit of asking powerful questions. If you find this difficult to do in real time, practice with friends or family before trying them in the workplace. The more ingrained these behaviors become, the more natural they will feel. Forming these new habits is key for long-term success with active listening.

According to Julian Treasure’s TED Talk, we spend 60 percent of our time listening but only retain 25 percent of what we hear. Active listening can help you not only retain more information but also better understand what is being said. It boosts your emotional intelligence and makes you a more empathetic leader.

Active listening enables you to better understand your employees’ struggles and avoid misunderstandings. This in turn can help you identify issues before they become serious problems. Showing compassionate attention to your employees’ needs helps you develop the necessary rapport, influence, and credibility to lead – and it’s the right thing to do.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Mark Runyon works as a director of consulting for Improving. For the past 20 years, he has designed and implemented innovative technology solutions for companies in the finance, logistics, and pharmaceutical space. He is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and is a contributing writer at InformationWeek.