Listening is one of the most valuable tools a leader has in his or her tool belt. Unfortunately, the busier we are and the higher we climb in the organization, the more difficult it becomes to listen.
I love Ralph Waldo Emerson’s attitude, “Every man I meet is in some way my superior, and I can learn from him.” The most influential leaders share this humble perspective and, in turn, never stop growing!
Edgar Watson Howe was joking when he said, “No man would listen to you talk if he didn’t know it was his turn next.” But there’s more truth to that statement then we are willing to admit. Too many leaders have the habit of waiting for their turn to talk rather than actually listening to the other person.
The best listeners share a common goal: to be impressed and interested, rather than impressive and interesting.
I think if we could all be honest, this level of humility is very difficult to share. But the benefits of this approach to our organizations and the people we lead would blow us all away.
So, how do we become better listeners?
In his book, Becoming a Person of Influence, John Maxwell offers nine suggestions that have helped me become a better listener. And I believe they can help you too!
1. Look at the Speaker
It may sound simple, but it’s absolutely the first step to effective listening. Don’t shuffle through papers or your phone while someone is talking to you. Make eye contact and lean in.
2. Don’t Interrupt
It is important to give people the time they need to express themselves. It’s even ok to allow for periods of silence—don’t be afraid of that. It can be very difficult for people to communicate what they are trying to say if they are fearful of being interrupted.
3. Focus on Understanding
The best listeners aren’t the best because they can remember facts about what was said; they are the best because they understand the purpose and meaning of what was said. As Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
4. Determine the Need
People talk for so many different reasons. And often times these reasons are different than what you expect. That’s why it’s important to understand the current need of the speaker. This context will help you fully engage as the listener.
5. Check Your Emotions
Just like baggage at an airport, when it comes to listening, your emotions will slow you down in getting to the desired destination. In certain situations, if you know that you might have an emotional reaction to what another person is saying, take a step back and check your emotions. This will help you focus on listening until they are finished speaking.
6. Suspend Your Judgment
You can’t jump to conclusions and be a good listener at the same time. Do your best to wait to hear the other persons full story or perspective before you judge what they mean.
7. Sum Up at Major Intervals
I love this one—it has helped me so much in my listening. When the speaker finishes one primary thought or subject, try to sum up his or her main points before going on to the next one. This will help you understand the speakers message, and will also communicate respect for the speaker.
8. Ask Questions for Clarity
Watch the best reporters on TV and study the way they ask effective questions to help move the conversation along. There is an art to gently asking clarifying questions, and the best listeners have mastered it.
9. Always Make Listening Your Priority
There is a great story about Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, during the height of his career. As the story goes, Walton was flying his plane to Mt. Pleasant, Texas and decided to land one hundred miles away from his destination just so he could spend extra time riding in a Wal-Mart truck and listen to the driver. Walton was not too busy or too big to make time for listening.
Most people are able to hear, but few are able to listen.
I want to encourage you—commit yourself to improve your listening. Maybe for you the first step is to schedule a listening occasion. Set aside one hour this week with the most important person in your life for the sole purpose of listening to them. Give them your full attention and spend less than one-third of the time talking.
As you develop your ability to listen, you will be amazed at the value it adds to your leadership.