Leadership is Listening

Listening is the key to great leadership. Here’s how you can tune in.

Leaders do plenty of talking — delivering feedbackcommunicating goals, and managing change. But the best leaders are listeners. Good listening makes it possible to read people’s attitudes and motivations. It fosters more cooperative relationships. And it helps us detect the subtle, simmering issues that hum quietly in the background.

Some leaders are naturally good listeners. When others speak, they eliminate surrounding noise and distractions. They’re fully engaged partners. For everyone else, there’s hope: Like most skills, listening is a learned behavior that can be practiced and refined.

If you want to improve this critical skill, listen up.

Don’t ask questions with hidden agendas. 

Some questions are just statements in disguise. On the surface, they look and sound like questions. In reality, they conceal a hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing, or correcting others. When questions begin with, “Wouldn’t you agree?” or “Don’t you think?” and end with some variation of “Am I right?” you’re probably trying to get others to see your point of view, not understand theirs.

Well-crafted questions stick to the point but give room for elaboration. If a team member raises concerns about the timeline for a new marketing campaign, don’t dismiss and deflect the challenge. Instead, try asking a clarifying question — “It sounds like you’re worried about our deliverables…did I get that right?” That simple check for understanding conveys genuine interest, amplifies the other person’s voice, and allows more information to make its way across.

Be reflective, not reflexive.

When we hear bad news, there’s a tendency to react with quick, reflexive solutions. But the fix-it approach goes straight to symptoms, not causes. Reflective leaders listen for the problem beneath the problem. They don’t just focus on the “what.” They listen for the “so what?” Rather than rush to fix the problem, they step back and try to frame the issue:

  • What hope, fear or concern is this person trying to communicate?
  • What assumptions is this person making?
  • What reasoning is this person offering?

It’s helpful to buffer your response with “wait time” — a self-imposed quiet period to consider what others are saying. Hold yourself to a few moments of silence before speaking. By shifting from a reflexive to reflective approach, you’ll not only give others more space to share, but you’ll get a fuller understanding of the what, so what and now what?

Listen for the silent signals.

What we show matters more than what we say. Body language and other nonverbal cues reveal our true feelings — the silent signals that are left unspoken. Good listeners can collect additional insights simply by watching for the body’s tell-tale signs:

  • Hushed tone
  • Slumped or closed posture
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Furrowed brow
  • Tightening of the cheeks and lips

For leaders, paying attention pays off: Researchers found that people volunteered less information and spoke less articulately when talking to inattentive listeners. But when they perceived others to be more aware of body language and nonverbal cues, they provided more relevant and detailed information — even without the other person having to ask for it.

Leading is listening. If you want to increase your leadership presence, demonstrate greater empathy and show people they matter, then take stock of how you’re seeking and receiving information from others. You might just be surprised by what you hear.

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