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How Leaders Can Build Their Listening Skills

Jared Atchison
Jared Atchison

Listening is an active skill that helps you improve work relationships.

Now more than ever, managers need to show empathy and practice their listening skills during work-related interactions. When you listen effectively, you show respect to your coworkers and make it easier to elicit cooperation. 

Listening is a critical skill and if used well, you can see clear benefits in your business. You can even improve your employee retention rates. Only 21% of employees feel valued at work, and one of the top reasons for people to leave a job is a lack of appreciation. Being a good listener will help you acknowledge your team better. 

You'll also gather the information that otherwise escapes a leader who doesn’t have good listening skills. 

It's a skill that takes knowledge and experience to fully develop. There are entire careers where one’s ability to do a job well depends on their ability to listen. For example, being a lawyer, an arbitrator, a counselor, or a business leader requires paying attention to what people say. 

In this post, we'll look at how business leaders can practice active listening. Use these tips as a quick reference guide to improve your listening skills.

Be mindful of your body language 

Listening seems like a passive role in which you are merely receiving information. However, in reality, a good listener facilitates further information sharing in a subtle but active manner. You use your body language and facial expressions to help others feel comfortable. And this can have a dramatic impact on how confident a speaker feels. So, here are some simple body language tips you can apply to help others speak more comfortably:

  • Adopt an open posture. Simple gestures like crossing your feet or hands convey subconscious signals of defensiveness and being closed off. Be mindful of the position of your hands, arms, and feet, and try to sit or stand in a relaxed manner. Having your chest "exposed’" or keeping your arms by your side make you appear open and easy to speak to

  • Make eye contact. Some people make the mistake of looking away while another person speaks. The simple act of making eye contact and maintaining it in a casual manner can go a long way towards making the other person feel listened to. They are more likely to speak what’s really on their mind and share important information with you

  • Lean slightly towards the speaker. Just leaning your head or your shoulders lightly towards the speaker creates the feeling that you're engaged. You’ll build a comfortable space for people to share their thoughts

At first, trying to apply body language techniques deliberately will feel awkward. But with practice, they'll become second nature. You may even start to feel more comfortable while listening as a result of your efforts. Now, let’'s look at other critical ways to become a better listener. 

Minimize interruptions and questions

One common misconception is that asking questions when speaking to someone is a good way to further the flow of information. However, this is not a strategy that you should apply to all situations. 

Here are different scenarios for you to be conscious of. Each scenario will require a different kind of response from you as a listener. 

  • The person speaking to you pauses during the conversation. They appear to be thinking and are not looking at you in a pointed way. They are likely thinking and do not need you to prompt them. Wait until they start talking. 

  • It's a critical meeting where you're negotiating with a potential hire, a client, or a supplier. There's a lull in the conversation. Avoid filling this gap and let the other person be the first to speak. This is especially important when a critical point is being discussed. If you speak too soon, you may end up conceding in a way that’s unfavorable to you

  • There's a pause and the speaker is looking at you directly. It appears they are waiting for you to respond. It’s important to speak up in this situation. Not doing so will appear as if you’re not listening

Generally speaking, allowing others to speak uninterruptedly is an important part of listening. Avoid asking questions or interrupting as this can break one’s train of thought. Simply nodding and gesturing is often enough to encourage a speaker to keep talking. 

Avoid distractions

Another important way to listen and allow others to speak is to make sure you’re not disturbed. This means blocking time aside from your usual work and keeping meetings and other tasks for later. 

Make sure that when having a conversation with an employee or partner, that you're doing it in a quiet place or somewhere you won’t be bothered by noise or other distractions.

It's also important to switch off your phone and to avoid answering calls or responding to messages when listening to others. Phone notifications form an unwelcome interruption even you set your phone on silent with the vibrating function. 

Even a quick check on your phone can throw off a conversation and remove the sense of engagement. Given that 20% of people claim they can’'t go an hour without checking social media, it’s important to be aware of just how much your interactions with your phone affect relationships at home and at work. 

Removing distractions only take a few steps or actions. Make it a habit to avoid using your phone or doing other work while listening. You'll find that you get more out of the conversation and will have a more meaningful interaction. 

Avoid judgment

When it comes to active listening, the hardest thing you may have to do is listen without judging the speaker. The reason why you avoid judging the speaker or the content of their conversation is that doing so will:

  • Result in the speaker not fully expressing themselves

  • Make you jump to conclusions too quickly

Listening without judging requires mindfulness, practice, and patience. Remember that you can always give advice at the end of a conversation. Any decision you have to take can also wait after you’ve listened to what the other person has to say. 

Remember that you’ll meet different people with their own life experiences. Listening without judgment gives you the chance to take different cultural aspects into consideration. You can also ask questions to learn more about why a person said what they did. Try paraphrasing what the other person said and ask them if you understood what they meant.

Ultimately, your best chance of being a good listener and establishing good relationships with other people is to learn to practice empathy and acceptance. Like any skill, these qualities can grow with experience. 

Be a better listener to be a good leader

The art of listening is challenging to learn and carry out. But it’s one that offers a number of benefits to you as a leader and to the people, you work with. 

We often face interpersonal conflict that’s a simple result of poor communication. Employees also hold back from giving their ideas and bringing up concerns because they are not sure that they will be heard.

We’ve covered many practical tips that you can use to become a better listener. These small but impactful steps can go a long way towards creating a pleasant workplace and boosting employee morale. The important thing is to practice these suggestions and they'll soon become natural to you, making you more effective as a leader. 

Image Credit: fizkes/Getty Images
Jared Atchison
Jared Atchison Member
Co-Founder of WPForms, one of the largest WordPress contact form plugins in the market. I have been programming for over a decade and enjoy creating plugins that help people create powerful web designs without touching code.