Good listening: it’s one of the most frequently taught leadership skills, and yet the chief complaint many employees have about their bosses is that they just don’t listen.
We all think we’re listening to what people are saying to us and that we understand the messages sent our way. In reality, this is rarely the case. We’re naturally wired to talk, not listen. We hear the beginning of a statement, we assume we know what the person is going to say, and immediately we start working on a response or a rebuttal — even before the person has finished talking.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Alexandra Barton Taketa, a corporate talent development specialist and co-author of What You Don’t Know About Listening (Could Fill A Book), on my radio show iLead: The Leadership Connection. (The episode was broadcast live from Dubai, where I was teaching Talent Management Bootcamp, an intensive workshop on how to attract the best people to your company and keep them. For info on upcoming bootcamps in Johannesburg and Beijing, click here.)
Over the past ten years, “What You Don’t Know About Listening” has become an important part of management development programs for companies everywhere. In our interview, Alexandra offered a number of simple, clear tips on how we can become the listeners we all aspire to be. So: listen up!
Understand what it means to listen. Hearing is an automatic physiological response. Listening, on the other hand, is a learned skill. Most of us learn to listen by copying others, watching and mimicking the actions of parents, siblings, friends, teachers, bosses. Unfortunately, it’s easy to learn bad behaviors, like tuning out and interrupting.
What does it look like when someone is really listening to you? “The most common response I get is ‘eye contact,’ ” says Alexandra. “Eye contact is a key component of core conversation, but it’s not actually going to prove you’re listening. Someone might be looking at you, but still be entrenched in their own experience and their own agenda.”
What kind of behavior proves you’re really listening?
Focus on the other person. It may sound obvious, but listening is about getting the other person to talk. It’s about asking great questions and waiting to hear the answers. Remember, if you’re doing all the talking, you’re just repeating what you already know. You won’t learn anything new.
A great question is open-ended. It doesn’t have a “yes” or “no” answer. An example of this type of question might be, “What ideas do you have about the project?”
Dig deeper into what the person has just said. Alexandra and her co-author, John White, call this “vertical” questioning. It allows you to learn more about the person’s values, their creative ideas, and how they feel about a subject. For instance, a person just came back from a snorkeling vacation. A horizontal question would be: “What kind of fish did you see?” There’s only one answer to this question. A vertical question might be, “What do you enjoy about snorkeling?” That line of inquiry can prompt many different answers and opens up all sorts of possibilities. “Vertical questions take the conversation deeper,” says Alexandra. “They allow for a more authentic and richer interaction.”
Structure your questions carefully. Alexandra notes that managers often pose questions starting with the word “why.” Why did this happen? Why did you do this? “Why” questions often trigger a defensive response, since they are so frequently followed by a reprimand. Instead of starting your question with “why,” try using the word “what,” a word that carries a more neutral and less judgmental tone.
Practice, practice, practice. Although her book is targeted toward business leaders, Alexandra emphasizes that we’re in communication with people all day long, in all aspects of our lives. So go ahead and practice good listening behavior with your family, friends, and other people outside of the office. Your skills will improve quickly, and you’ll feel the difference in the depth of your relationships.
Likewise, don’t confine listening in the workplace only to certain situations where you think it might be helpful, such as performance reviews. Try listening in meetings and in casual conversations. Instead of just tuning in once in a while, have a continuous dialogue with your employees.
I’ve used Alexandra’s methods and I can attest that they work. In times like these, when most companies are either multi-national, or aspire to be, being able to listen deeply is an essential tool for dealing with cross-cultural issues and other language- and values-based challenges you’re likely to encounter.
As the leadership guru Peter Drucker once said, “The leader of the future asks; the leader of the past tells.” Effective listening and communication are what sets the great leader apart from the average one!