Think of the best boss you’ve ever had. What was it about that person that made him or her your best boss? Did you trust them? Probably. Did they care about you? Very likely. Was he or she a great listener? Almost certainly.
Listening is one of the most underrated and unappreciated leadership skills. Many leaders don’t put any intentional effort into how they listen to their people. They just assume “it happens.” I mean, come on, right? You have ears…the other person talks…you listen…then reply with what you want to say because usually that’s more important than what the other person has to say anyway, right? Wrong.
Being an effective listener is one of the quickest ways to build trust with your people. People trust leaders who take the time to hear their ideas and empathize with their concerns. It’s also one of the best opportunities to learn what’s going on in your business and influence the activities of your team members. You can’t know what’s happening on the front lines unless you ask questions and listen to the responses.
Becoming a good listener doesn’t happen by accident. It takes time and effort to listen effectively, and in order to become a great listener, you have to practice the five fundamentals of listening.
The Five Fundamentals of Effective Listening
1. Attending to Nonverbal Behaviors – Your nonverbal behaviors tell the speaker you are either interested and comprehending what is being said or you are disinterested and would rather be somewhere else. Are you smiling and nodding in understanding or are you yawning, scowling, or staring the person down? Is your body position leaning in to the conversation to show you are engaged or are you leaning back with your arms folded indicating you’re feeling defensive? Your body language should communicate “Go ahead, I care, I’m listening.”
2. Asking Questions – The best leaders ask questions – lots of them. But not all questions are created equal and different types of questions serve different purposes. Open-ended questions encourage the speaker to share more information and go deeper in the conversation. Clarifying questions help you understand the full context of what is being shared whereas prompting questions encourage the speaker to reflect deeper on their own thoughts. Close-ended questions allow you to limit the conversation or find out specific information and leading questions allow you to bring the conversation to a close.
3. Reflecting Feelings – Reflecting feelings is the skill of capturing the speaker’s feelings and restating them in nonjudgmental terms. It demonstrates to the speaker that you are aware of the emotion behind the content of what is being shared. Using phrases such as “It sounds like you’re really _______” (frustrated, angry, sad, etc.) or “I can sense your _______ (apprehension, anxiety, pride, etc.)” indicates you are empathizing with the speaker which allows him/her to trust you more and share more information.
4. Paraphrasing – Paraphrasing demonstrates that you heard and understand what was being shared. The basics of paraphrasing include restating key words or phrases, following the speaker’s sequence, listening to understand, and showing empathy. You don’t want to robotically repeat what the speaker said verbatim, twist the speaker’s words, or prejudge the situation.
5. Summarizing – Summarizing is the skill of being able to concisely recap what the speaker said over a longer period of time. The exact words aren’t as important as capturing the key ideas, feelings, or action items that were shared. It can help to take notes, summarize periodically throughout the conversation, and to follow the order and sequence of information shared by the speaker. Don’t act like a parrot and repeat the exact words shared or add your own conclusions to the summary.
These five fundamentals may seem like no-brainers, but the truth is that most leaders don’t do them very well, or even at all. Just like a professional athlete continuously practices the fundamentals of his/her sport, leaders should continually practice these fundamentals of listening.