In my opinion, a good leader spends much of her time listening to those around her. Work by the Gallup Organization seems to back that up. Gallup says that employee engagement is higher when people feel their opinions count, when they have the materials and equipment they need to do their jobs right, when their jobs are matched to their strengths and when someone pays attention to their development. All of those require careful listening.
Think you are a great listener? Have a look at this Active Listening Quiz (MSWord2003, 38 kb). If you didn't score as high as you wanted to, read on.
One of Stephen Covey's original seven habits was, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." That is the principle underlying Listening for Leaders. The more you understand about the people you seek to lead, the more they will be interested in following you.
The authors of Co-Active Coaching, 2nd Edition: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and, Life describe three levels of listening:
Level I - Listening with my focus on me (the listener).
Level II- Listening with my focus on you (the speaker).
Level III - Listening beyond words - listening to my intuition in addition to your words.
Unless you scored very high on the active listening quiz, you will probably want to work first on moving some of your listening from Level I to Level II. Here are some tips to make that happen.
- Try the two-minute listening drill frequently, and get feedback from the other person about how you did. Perhaps do a bit of buddy-listening, taking turns with the drill.
- Eliminate distractions. I find that sometimes I listen better if I am on the phone. I am a visual person, so I like to eliminate all visual distractions (by closing my eyes) and "see" the person to whom I'm listening. At a minimum, you will want to turn off your phone, and perhaps turn off the computer monitor.
- Before you begin, take a few deep breaths and calm yourself.
- Ask up front what the other person wants to discuss, what they want to walk away with when you are done, what they are hoping for from you as a result of your listening, and how they will know if you listened well.
- Focus. FOCUS!!!! Please don't multi-task. Nothing says, "You are a worm beneath my feet" more clearly than multi-tasking when you are supposed to be listening. Don't type on your computer. Put the crackberry away (and turn off any buzzers or beeps it might make). Look at the person.
- Quiet your mind. Just listen to the other person. Don't take notes - just listen. If your mind begins to wander, bring it back. If you lose the thread of the conversation, say so and ask the other person to restate what you missed. Don't "wait-for-your-turn-to-talk" - just listen. (This is what the two-minute drill teaches. You can listen, without taking notes and without thinking about your response, and you will still be able to respond appropriately - if not more appropriately.)
- When the other person seems to be done talking wait for a slow count of two before responding. Let some air into the conversation.
- Learn to be comfortable with silence. If you ask a question that really makes the other person think, give them space to do that thinking. Just breath quietly and wait. Let them fill the silence. You don't need to fill it.
- Make any questions simple and short. Don't explain your questions. Don't weaken them by droning on and on. The best questions are short and sharp and keep the conversation flowing.
Finally, here are 20 great questions for Listening Leaders (MSWord 2003, 32kb).
Let me know how your listening goes. I'm all ears!