When asked about which communication skills are most important, many leaders will typically respond with qualities like assertiveness, positive body language, voice modulation, and authority. Certainly, these are essential skills: assertiveness means that your followers will listen, positive body language puts them at ease, voice modulation keeps your tone appropriate, and authority gets the job done.
But there is one vital thing missing from this list: the ability and willingness to listen.
Truly great leaders understand that communication is a two-way street. It is not simply about saying what you want to say, about getting your viewpoint across with the aim of having things done the way you think they should be done. Effective communication is about a constructive flow, analysis, and integration of information. It's about two or more people working together as a team to come up with the best solution, even if one of those people is the leader and the others are followers.
And listening is the key to this type of effective communication. This may feel counter-intuitive to some. What's the point of listening to someone else when we really need to convince them that our viewpoint is the best? While it may be true that persuasion is part of your role, by learning how to use active listening skills you can actually achieve more in the long run.
What is active listening?
Active listening is more than waiting politely for the other person to finish speaking so you can have your turn. While that's certainly a step up from interrupting (and it's surprising how many leaders need to work on this skill alone), active listening takes effort. It involves digesting the information that the other person relates to you and really taking it into consideration when formulating your own viewpoint and response.
Active listening can be broken down into simple steps:
- Allow the other person to express what they are thinking
- Paraphrase what they have said to you
- Check that you have correctly understood what they have said
- Analyse their viewpoint to see how it fits in with your own
- Give your own viewpoint, taking the other person's perspective into consideration, expressing yourself with "I statements".
Empathy is the foundation for active listening. As a leader, it may have been a while since you were in the shoes of your followers. Go back to when you were at that level and keen to get your ideas noticed or feeling insecure about your value as an employee. Doing this will reap rewards in surprising ways.
How active listening leads to leadership success
Improving your active listening skills is a small effort that will pay off in your career. Here are just a few examples:
- Discover vital information: It's amazing what we miss when we are so focused on getting our point across that we aren't really hearing what the other person has to say. Active listening opens your eyes to facts that you may not have been aware of. Constructive dialogue allows you to ask questions and follow up with more, with the end result being that you may walk away from the conversation knowing far more than you would have otherwise.
- Build trust: When you show your followers that you are truly hearing them and taking their ideas into consideration, you earn their trust. This will allow them to open up more to you rather than withholding information.
- Earn respect and loyalty: While you can always force your followers to "respect" you by imposing your authority on them using your active listening skills is more authentic and effective. In turn, you will be rewarded with your team's loyalty and willingness to do the right thing not because they have to, but because they want to.
The best way to improve your active listening skills is to practice in a role--play with another person, so you can learn how to focus on the key steps involved. Your executive coach can be a helpful resource in this regard. Start small, with simple conversations, and then move on to tougher topics and see how effective active listening can be.
When leaders are effective communicators, success (and life) becomes much easier. Whether a leader is communicating from the top down or hitting a roadblock from above, chances are that active listening will smooth the way for achieving your leadership goals.
By Deborah Wilson