Active listening: Why the greatest leaders aren't just good talkers

Richard Reid
Revelling Pups
Effective listeners ask clarifying questions – they don't make assumptions (Source: Getty)

Most of us are more accustomed to speaking rather than listening. Indeed, the traditional image of leadership is more likely to conjure up overtly dynamic activities such as expressing strong opinions and taking decisive actions.

It is equally important to know when to listen. Yet in my experience, many leaders struggle with the concept.

Our ability to listen effectively is often impaired by our own internal dialogues, assumptions and agendas. Despite what we may believe, just like expressing strong opinions and taking decisive actions, listening is actually an active process that involves focusing on what is being said while simultaneously bracketing our own intrusive thoughts and distractions. Those leaders who apply genuine listening skills and engender this trait within their staff are far more likely to generate a thriving organisation.

Blinkered approach

Most of us know first-hand that employees will often go the extra mile when they feel led by those who genuinely appear to care about who they are and what they represent to the broader team or organisation.

Employees are more than just deployable resources. Many leaders lose sight of the fact that each person under them is a valuable asset who embodies a range of unique capabilities and aptitudes outside of their immediate job function. When we fail to apply active listening skills (or even inadvertently close the conversation down by interrupting or distractedly playing with our mobile phone!), we lose an opportunity to understand someone else more fully and to demonstrate appreciation and empathy for them as a person.

Moreover, we risk jeopardising the future progress of the organisation by failing to allow the full expression of diversity. Innovation is generally promoted by listening. When a leader is too direct or quick to react, the organisation misses out on any improvements or solutions that another individual might discover by applying their unique set of experiences to the situation.

Snap judgements

Leaders that judge others too quickly are unlikely to be applying active listening skills. Being decisive can also lend itself to making snap judgements and rejecting different styles or approaches to a situation.

Leaders who are effective listeners validate and ask clarifying questions – they do not make assumptions, but use the interaction as an opportunity to learn. Conversely, when we judge, we tend to limit innovation and de-motivate employees by reducing feelings of responsibility, control, and importance.

Active listening requires a far greater degree of time and patience than traditional forms of leadership, but it also opens us to new ways of looking at the world and those in it. It makes us far more approachable, and inspires more honest conversations.

A cut above

Great leaders don’t just hear conversations; they listen to them and enagage with others in a manner which ultimately strengthens working relationships and creates a virtuous circle for all concerned.

These leaders are profoundly present in the moment and acutely aware of verbal and non-verbal communication. Being consistently tuned in to the dynamics around them means that they can more effectively inspire professional development and overall performance in their teams.

It is estimated that, within an average working day, we spend approximately 45 per cent of our time listening. But our comprehension rate of what we hear is just 25 per cent. Moreover, less than 3 per cent of all professionals have undertaken any type of formal training in listening skills and techniques.

Surely, given the inherent importance of good active listening skills, this is a prime opportunity which is being missed.

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