Powerful Leaders are Active Listeners

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Those who have the most influence over others tend to be powerful listeners. Listening is a prerequisite for understanding and understanding is essential for a leader to motivate and influence others.

Managers tend to rank their listening skills as “above average,” but statistical research shows that most people forget 50 percent of what they hear within moments of hearing it. Obviously, there’s a big difference between hearing and listening. Active listening is the skill of listening with your ears, eyes, mind, and “gut.” The adept listener focuses on what the person is saying, both verbally and non-verbally, and also listens for what the speaker is not saying.

One of the biggest hurdles in mastering active listening is learning how to listen without trying to sell the speaker your point of view. Defending your position, justifying your reasoning, or telling someone why he or she is “wrong” are three of the most effective ways to stop the flow of information.

Your role as an active listener is to create a dynamic that encourages others to put all their cards on the table. The more you can empathize with the person speaking, the more they will open up and share with you. This is vital because until you identify and comprehend the problem, you can’t begin to solve it.

Listen for the Meaning and the Emotion

Active listening is paying close attention to “who” is saying “what” and “how” they’re saying it. It involves listening to the content of the message and discerning how the speaker is feeling about the topic he or she is discussing. The content is often straightforward and easy enough to grasp, but determining the speaker’s emotional stance usually takes practice.

Pay attention to the tone of voice the speaker is using. Do they sound excited, worried, confident, pensive, certain or unsure? Are they speaking quickly, slowly, or at a moderate pace? What does their pace, combined with their tone of voice, tell you? For instance, if they are speaking quickly, and sound enthusiastic, they are probably feeling confident. However, if they are speaking quickly and their voice is shaking, they might have “stage fright,” or they might be worried about how their message is being received.

Listen for the speaker’s inflection. Which words is the speaker knowingly or unknowingly emphasizing by changing their tone, pitch, or volume? Inflection can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

Keep in mind that non-verbal cues such as smiles, frowns, crossed arms, avoiding eye contact, and other forms of body language and facial expressions can say much more than words. As you’re listening, watch the speaker’s actions to see whether they are congruent with his or her words. If someone is saying yes, while turning his head from side to side (usually meaning “no”) he may be sending you a mixed message.

Learning how to read nonverbal language will give you greater insight into others, and it will increase your awareness of your own nonverbal communication so that your words and body language are saying the same thing.

Decode the Silence

Another important aspect of active listening involves paying attention to what is not being said. This is the auditory equivalent to “reading between the lines.” If a member of your staff is gushing approval for your project’s objectives, but doesn’t comment on the plan to accomplish those objectives, he or she may have issues with the process. Or, he or she may be in agreement with the process, and therefore feels no need to comment. It’s up to you to ask questions and get clarity on what is not being said.

Active Listening Tips

  • Show you are paying attention by making eye contact, nodding your head, and leaning slightly forward.
  • Use “noncommittal” words such as, “go on,” “I see,” “Uh-huh,” and “That’s interesting” to encourage the person to continue talking.
  • Validate the speaker’s feelings and opinions without agreeing or disagreeing to show you are listening and empathize. “I understand how you could feel like that.”
  • Summarize what you have heard the speaker say, focusing on the facts, to convey that you comprehend. “If I understand you correctly, you are saying that…”
  • Ask questions to increase your understanding and attempt to clear up misconceptions.
  • Share your perceptions and ask whether your perceptions are accurate. If they’re not, ask the speaker clarify them for you.
  • Thank the speaker for his or her input.
  • Tell the speaker what you plan to do to follow up.

Jim Canterucci

I don't know everything. But I want to. The focus of our firm, Transition Management Advisors, is to develop leadership capabilities to create a championship culture, generate innovation, and successfully lead the resulting changes.

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On June 9, 2008
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