Thursday 18 December 2014 8:23 pm

Listening is the most underrated leadership skill

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Knowing when to shut up will help you earn the respect of colleagues.
AS A leader, sometimes the most inspirational thing you can do is simply to listen to people. Speeches and tough decision-making no doubt have a place in business, but the lost art of just hearing people out is often forgotten amid the clamour for grandeur. Here are six essential skills for masterful listening.


When listening, focus exclusively on the other person and what’s being said. Do not fall into the trap of thinking about what you’re going to say. People will shut up if you keep interrupting them. Smile, and help the other person feel free to talk, encouraging them with nods or short comments. Watch them – they will say as much with non-verbal signals as words. And keep an eye on your own body language – your signals will be conveying subtle messages.


Demonstrate that you’re aware of how the other person feels. Name the emotions you see. If you say something like, “I can see you are angry about this,” they can disagree and tell you how they are really feeling, or they may appreciate that you’ve recognised their state of mind. Don’t allow your own emotions to interfere with your listening.


Use open-ended questions as often as you can. “What happened next?”, “How did you feel when that happened?”, “Why do you think they did that?”, “I’m not sure what you mean, could you repeat that?” Try clarifying questions, like: “Let me see if I am clear – I think you mean this…” Use your own words to reflect what they are saying, not their words. This will reassure the speaker that you understand, and that you are taking stock of what’s being said. 


Questions are the breath of life for conversations. We all respond to honest and sensitive questions in a much more positive way than to pointed advice. Good leaders ask incisive questions, but avoid making people feel beaten up. Beware of using “Why?” too much. It can be seen as quite aggressive by itself. Soften it by saying something like: “Tell me more about why you chose that option?” Avoid judgemental questions, or you will very quickly shut people up.


Regularly summarising what you’ve heard is a powerful way to show that you’re listening. Use the phrase “What I hear you saying is…”, or “What I have heard so far is…” This is the way to make absolutely sure that you understand each other. If you then want to make a point of your own, the other person will feel much more willing to listen once you’ve demonstrated that you understand their point of view.


Always end by suggesting what should be done next. Visibly make a note of these actions, and be sure to follow up. People will be far more engaged if they believe that you will act on what’s been talked about. You may decide that it’s best not to act on suggestions that have been made. But always explain why – it’s cowardly not to do so, and fully explaining yourself should help to build respect.
Kevin Murray is chairman of The Good Relations Group and author of two best-selling books on motivational leadership: The Language of Leaders and Communicate to Inspire, published by Kogan Page.

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