As leader we all try hard to be good listeners. We practice those behaviours that we have had drilled in to us for so long – make eye contact but don’t stare; paraphrase back what you think you have heard; don’t speak, don’t interrupt, don’t smile, don’t frown and, of course, nod when appropriate. Follow these ‘five easy steps’ and you’ll soon be regarded as a great listener by everybody.
By now you have probably realised there is a lot more to being a great listener than the five easy steps listed above. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these ‘five easy steps’, you’ll know how they can been seen as insincere, patronising and a little robotic. And you also know how you end up feeling as if you have not been heard at all – despite the ‘five easy steps’ routine. As a leader this is the opposite of how you want your team to feel – they need to know that they are being listened to, and that you actually value their opinions and what they have to say.
By analysing the behaviour of over 3,000 participants in a management improvement program, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman recently discovered that what we think makes a great listener (the ‘five easy steps’) and what actually makes a great listener are not the same. Instead, the most effective listeners weren’t just listeners at all. As well as making eye contact, nodding where appropriate they actually engaged in the conversation by talking back. Great listeners see the interaction as a conversation and ask questions that probe deeper into what the other person is saying. They seek to clarify and build their understanding of the conversation, to provide immediate feedback and to create a positive and safe environment for the other person. So the really great listeners (and leaders) seek to be empathetic, constructive , positive and interactive in their listening. They also strive to build a safe environment where everyone feels valued and comfortable in speaking up respectfully.
As a leader, listening to and understanding what your team has to say will not only help you improve your own ideas and opinions, but also make the team member feel valued and help develop their own processes. Listening and conversing shouldn’t follow a script – after all, we’re people, not robots.