Are you a good listener? Take a moment to think about it. If you’re unsure of the answer or find that you’re considering the idea for the very first time, that’s quite all right. Contrary to what some may believe, effective listening is not exactly an innate trait, and if you haven’t mastered it just yet, the good news is it’s something that can be learned.
For those in leadership roles hoping to motivate and gain the trust of their employees, being able to listen effectively is of paramount importance, but it’s not something that will happen over night. Effective listening is actually a skill that requires a great deal of effort, development, and practice. In this blog, we will explore what it means to be an effective listener, and discuss how the ability to do so skillfully can transform you into a leader that employees want to follow.
Before we get started, let’s first identify the common objective of most leaders. “The leader's fundamental act is to induce people to be aware or conscious of what they feel, to feel their true needs so strongly, to define their values so meaningfully, that they can be moved to purposeful action."[i] Sounds pretty powerful right? But in order to determine the true needs of your employees, as a leader, you must be able to listen intently.
So, what exactly are effective listening skills, and how do managers go about acquiring them? Well, for starters effective listening is more commonly referred to as active listening, and active listeners typically abide by these three rules:[ii]
- Be respectful.
- Keep quiet when the other person is speaking.
- Challenge any assumptions you may have to gain clarity.
Since we now have the basics, let’s get into some ways to ensure you are displaying these key behaviors on a continual basis.
Situational Awareness is Key
At CATMEDIA, before we begin a new project, one of the first things we do is conduct a target market analysis on the intended audience. This involves the gathering of information such as the age range, gender, ethnic background, average income, and education level of the target demographic. By performing a target market analysis, we are essentially getting to know our audience better, so that we can best anticipate, meet, and even exceed the needs of our clients. But a target market analysis should not just be confined to the assessment of our audiences externally. This exercise can also be instrumental in developing insight on the needs and concerns of your employees internally.
So, when preparing for a meeting with a member of your team, always try to factor in his or her situation. Consideration of the other person’s specific circumstances is important, and situational awareness plays an intrinsic role in active listening. With this in mind, take some time to reflect upon your employees, their lives, and who they are. Start by asking yourself:
- Who is the other person?
- What kinds of things are most important to this person?
- What might this person’s perspective be?
- How is this person best motivated or influenced?
- What is the intended objective of the conversation?
- What should the tone of the discussion be?
By asking yourself these kinds of questions, you will be better prepared to listen actively to the emotions, needs, and concerns of your team members and be able to address them on their terms.
Listen to Understand
As a leader, it is important to recognize that although you have your own preferences, values, and opinions, none of this should interfere with your working relationships or ability to effectively listen to others. When we listen actively, we listen to understand versus forcing others to understand us. In doing this, we demonstrate that we are open, accepting, free of judgment, and possess a willingness to learn from others. If you’re someone who tends to have strong opinions, focus your energy on developing more patience, so that you can be more accommodating of the thoughts and feelings of others.
A good way to ensure that you are listening to understand is to create adequate time in your day to have these conversations, and mentally prepare if needed. The last thing you want to do is be in defense mode when your employees are attempting to express and articulate their concerns. This is the quickest way to lose the trust you seek to obtain.
If you have back-to-back meetings on your calendar for the day or other issues that could potentially interfere with your ability to listen, reschedule. The goal should be to ensure you have time on your calendar to listen, clarify, and actually reflect on these conversations in order to effectively improve and build upon your work relationships.
Remember: We Don’t All Communicate the Same Way
When collaborating with your team, always remember that no two people are the same, and not everyone communicates the same way. There is no one-size fits all solution for your team, and every office is a melting pot of personality types. In most work environments, we all share at least one commonality—to be as productive as possible. However, we all have our own unique ways of going about achieving that goal.
For instance, some employees may be more vocal in group settings while others will feel more comfortable communicating via email, Skype, or one-on-one. Some employees are more independent while others require more structure and direction. As a manager, you can effectively demonstrate your flexibility and adaptability by being intuitive and listening actively to the thoughts and ideas of each employee to better assess their individual needs. This can go a long way in developing a more solid rapport with your employees.
Listen to the Unsaid
There is more to listening than “hearing” what is actually expressed verbally. In fact, one of the most important aspects of communication is being able to hear what isn’t said. People don’t just communicate verbally, they also communicate via non-verbal cues such as body language.
Conversations between managers and employees can often be difficult because as much as employees would love to be 100 percent open and honest, they don’t always feel comfortable doing so. This is why listening to what is not being said is so critical, and the observance of behavior is also an essential component in active listening. Pay attention to the employee’s body language. Do they appear upbeat and excited or awkward and uncomfortable? What about eye contact? Are they looking directly at you or away? By actively listening to non-verbal cues, you can gain a tremendous amount of insight and begin to discern and understand how your employees are truly feeling to help determine the best possible solution.
As mentioned previously, the ability to listen actively and effectively is not something that just happens over night. It actually requires a tremendous amount of self-reflection and hard work. As you continue to hone and fine-tune your active listening skills, always remember to be respectful, refrain from speaking while the other person is talking, and ask clarification questions if needed. By following these fundamental listening guidelines, you will be able to successfully build upon your work relationships while exhibiting leadership qualities that are sure to motivate and inspire your employees.
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CATMEDIA is an award-winning Inc. 500 company based in Atlanta, Georgia. Founded in 1997, the company specializes in advertising, creative services, media production, program management, training, and human resource management. As a Women Owned Small Business (WOSB), CATMEDIA provides world-class customer service and innovative solutions to government and commercial clients. Current CATMEDIA clients include Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
[i] Burns, J. Macgregor. Leadership. Harper & Row, 1978.
[ii] Keyser, John. “Active Listening Leads to Business Success. ”TD Magazine, July 2013.