May Busch says the most successful leaders know how to be good listeners — but she cautions that it is a skill not as easily acquired as it might seem.
If I had to pick one skill that has helped me be a more successful leader, colleague and family member, it would be listening.
The benefits of being a great listener are huge.
Not only do you learn more when you listen instead of talking; listening is a core ingredient of forming trusted relationships that last through challenging times as well as good.
When people feel completely listened to, it satisfies a basic human instinct — the need to feel seen, heard and valued.
Being able to help people feel that way puts you in a very special category. When you’re a great listener, people will want to talk to you again.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t listen well, but the good news is it’s a skill you can develop and even master, although it will take some conscious effort and commitment.
In my experience, there are three kinds of listening and most people only know the first two.
Listening to respond: This is the kind of listening most of us come across at work. I know it well because I’ve been guilty of it. It’s when you’re looking at the speaker but thinking about what points you want to make. You’re not really paying attention except to see when you can jump back into the conversation.
Since most people recognise when others are listening only to respond, you don’t get much credit for this kind of listening. It won’t help you win over clients, build relationships with your colleagues, or endear you to your family.
Listening to comprehend: This is where you’re paying enough attention to understand what the other person is saying, but no more.
In the case of a good friend’s husband, he can be staring at his computer screen yet still repeat back what his wife has said word for word when she asks: “Are you even
listening to me?”. While listening to comprehend is better than listening to respond, it still leaves people feeling unsatisfied. Worse yet, they’re likely to feel that you don’t fully respect
or care about them.
Listening to Connect: The best kind of listening occurs when you are paying complete attention to the other person. That means listening in such a way that the other person feels heard and understood. It’s about how your listening lands with others. It’s not about you.
When you achieve this level of connected listening, marvellous things can happen. Your colleagues feel respected and you build trusted relationships; your family members feel how much you care; your reputation as a leader, partner and colleague rises.
When you consistently listen and connect to others in this complete way, you open up new possibilities for yourself, your family, your team, and your organisation. That’s because none of us succeeds alone — and the bigger your mission in life, the more you need others to work with you, not against you.
If listening to connect is the gold standard, then the question is how to achieve that. Here are four steps I’ve found can help.
Pay full attention: People sense when they have your full attention, so give it to them from the start and do so willingly. This means listening not just with your ears, but also through your body language, eye contact, and absence of distractions. Put aside your papers, put away your devices, and turn toward the other person.
Most importantly, become fascinated by what they are about to say. Don’t interrupt: Allow the person the luxury of finishing their thoughts. When they pause, resist the temptation to jump in right away with a comment or question. Instead, allow for the pause in case they have more to say — I find taking a full breath is a great way to fill the pause.
Express genuine curiosity: If you sense they still have something to say or if you need to learn more, ask a follow-up question that helps explore further. For example, “tell me more?” or “can you share an example?” or “I wonder when XYZ tends to happen most often?”.
By inviting them to tell you everything they feel the need to convey, you allow them to feel seen, heard and respected.
Respond in a way they feel understood: When it’s your turn to speak, respond in a way that makes them feel validated. If you know the other person well, it’s easier to identify the words and phrases that will resonate. Otherwise, the fact you’re paying complete attention will allow you to pick up their signals and respond appropriately.
When they’ve come to you for advice on an issue, a great way to do this is to paraphrase what they’ve said. For example: “I’d like to make sure I’ve understood — what I’m hearing is that you’re concerned about X because of Y and you’re thinking of doing Z.” On the other hand, if they just want you to listen without trying to solve their problem, then it might work better to express empathy. For example: “That must be hard” or “I know how hard you’ve worked on X — I can see how frustrating this must be for you”.
If this sounds like hard work, you’re not alone. When I first started working on my listening skills, it was frustrating to hold myself back from interrupting. It was tiring to be on my best behaviour for so much of the day.
So don’t worry if you can’t do it all the time. Not every situation requires listening to connect. The key is to determine when it will move the needle for you.
Instead, give yourself permission to ease into it. Start by choosing a few situations where you want to deepen your relationship with someone.
As you get more attuned to being that great listener, you can extend your listening skills to more situations.
The key is to keep working on it.
*May Busch’s mission is to help leaders and their organisations achieve their full potential. She works with smart entrepreneurs and top managements to build their businesses. She can be contacted at [email protected]. This article first appeared on May’s blogsite.