4 Active Listening Skills of Influential Leaders

Business.com / Leadership / Last Modified: November 21, 2017
Photo credit: KeyStock/Shutterstock

Leaders of influence understand that their ability to listen is as critical to their impact on others as their ability to communicate.

A leader's role can shape decisions, goals and priorities within their organization. An influential leader's role, however, can shape employee engagement, commitment, loyalty and culture. One key differentiator of an everyday leader versus an influential leader is the ability to listen in a way that impacts others and how they perceive their value to the organization.

Influential leaders gain credibility and trust by demonstrating strong communication skills consistently. They recognize the value of listening and how they characterize their commitment to the organization and its people. Influential leaders don't just passively listen; they actively listen and seek information others may miss.

In order to elevate your leadership status to become truly influential, four listening actions must be routinely practiced to become natural and habitual, whether it's in a high-stakes meeting or casual conversation. 

1. Quiet the inner dialogue.

Have you ever tried listening to someone speak while your mind is running a marathon of thoughts? Aside from the daily external distractions, inner dialogue can create a silent distraction that challenges any listener from truly hearing and understanding what another person is trying to convey.

One aspect that separates leaders from those of influence is their ability to think strategically, beyond the daily tasks and challenges each day brings. In order to be a good listener, leaders must allow time each day to be strategic with their thinking and reflect upon their team's goals and objectives. By permitting time for solitude and reflection, leaders can clear their mind so they can focus on what others are saying without being distracted by their own internal dialogue.

Tip: To set your inner dialogue free, consider scheduling 30 minutes each day for reflective thought. Outline one to three topics to brainstorm, making notes of your strategies and future conversational needs. Write down your concepts so you can devote all of your focus to others' ideas and considerations.

2. Put others first.

Influential leaders put others first and inspire employee talent by allowing them to speak and share ideas rather than providing all the answers. They listen for what motivates employees and benefits clients. They build their subsequent messages to meet the needs of others. Leaders of influence can read between the lines to find what inspires someone's thought processes and perspectives.

Before responding with commentary of any sort, influential leaders consider why the topic is important to their listeners. They ask open-ended questions that help reveal the reasoning behind listeners' needs. This ensures interactions are two-sided and not perceived as lectures. As a result, they build a reputation as someone who is engaging and doesn't waste people's time.

Tip: It is a leader's responsibility to respect everyone's time, priorities and perspectives. If a conversation is becoming derailed or losing focus, do not hesitate to get the conversation back on track and keep it moving forward, focusing on listeners' specific needs.

3. Train employees.

True leaders understand the team effort that goes into every success. They value the investment each team member makes, recognizing that strategies and goals cannot be executed alone but rather by a group they train and trust. Like a team of professional athletes, good coaching, training and skills development are a must.

Leaders of influence can tune into the needs of their team and encourage employees to identify and improve upon their own weaknesses. Leaders also recognize that the time spent training employees to be dedicated listeners is as important as training them on company systems, policies and procedures.

A workplace study sponsored by Siemens and conducted by SIS International Research found that employees spend an average of 17.5 hours per week clarifying communication issues and breakdowns between peers, leadership and customers, costing a 100-employee business more than $500K annually in lost productivity. Leaders can demonstrate the value they place on each work hour, the success of their team and customer experience by being intentional with employee training. Training employees to be influential communicators means teaching them to be effective listeners.

Tip: Changing how we listen to others requires changing our own habits. Create routine sessions where your team can practice their skills and learn strategies to apply in daily work conversations. Professional communication coaches can provide tools and exercises to elevate employees' communication skills, allowing them to have more impact in their day-to-day work.  

4. Set the example.

Influential leaders who are successful in their daily interactions are consistent in their skills each and every day. They earn credibility and trust because they are committed to demonstrating these skills, no matter the importance of the conversation.

Leaders of influence understand that their ability to listen is as critical to their impact on others as their ability to communicate. They recognize the importance of setting positive examples and modeling the kinds of skills they want employees to adopt. Studies have shown employees mimic the behavior of leadership and carry that throughout the company culture. In fact, one study by the National Business Ethics Survey from the Ethics Resource Center found the majority of employees react based on their environmental circumstances set by their leaders, even if it means compromising their own personal ideals.

The report found that 76 percent of employees in organizations with weak ethical cultures observed misconduct among their leadership, yet only 39 percent of employees of companies with strong ethical cultures did the same. Fifteen percent of those from weak cultures felt pressured to commit misconduct compared to only 4 percent of employees working in a strong, ethically led company culture.

Tip: Model the behavior you want others to emulate. When employees observe leaders listening intently, putting others first, demonstrating consistency and investing in their ongoing communication skills development, they will follow suit. When employees fail to see leadership acting as expected, they become disengaged, losing trust in those within leadership ranks. However, when employees see leaders of influence modeling expected behavior, credibility grows and behavior follows suit.

The leader's role is critical to the success of any organization. Leading with influence can elevate the relationship, credibility, trust and engagement of those all around. If you want to rise above the role of a leader and influence others to willingly act upon what you have to say, begin first by intently listening with these four action-oriented listening skills.

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