Congratulations! You've just been promoted to a big job, heading a group or function. You got the job because you're smart and hard-working--so hard-working, in fact, that your colleagues wonder if you ever sleep.

Naturally, you want to communicate with your team. Share your vision for what the group needs to accomplish. Do some straight talking about what needs improvement. Get everybody fired up, engaged, on board, on the same page.

But here's a little secret: The most important communication skill for any leader isn't presenting information--it's listening.

And the good news is you can teach yourself to be a better listener. Here are five ways to do so:

1. Get up and go. If you're like most people, your office space is a breeding ground for distractions. Email, ringing phones, smartphones and paperwork are like Kryptonite that can drain your power to listen.

The next time you need to have an important conversation with a colleague, leave your office and meet in a location that's free from distractions. Find a place that enables you to focus all of your energy and attention on the speaker. Try a local park, a quiet mall at non-peak hours or a restaurant.

2. Explore the "SOLER" system. It may seem corny, but you can use this handy acronym (SOLER) to improve listening behaviors:

  • Sit squarely. Move your body so you face the speaker head-on. Don't sit sideways or with your back to the speaker.
  • Open posture. Whether you're sitting or standing, keep your hands open and your arms at your sides. Avoid clenching your body or crossing your arms and legs when listening. This form of body language signals that you're defensive, frustrated or impatient.
  • Lean toward the speaker. This posture demonstrates you are interested in what the speaker is saying. Don't slouch in your chair or stand slumped over. Be attentive!
  • (Make) Eye contact. Maintain comfortable eye contact. A good rule of thumb is to maintain eye contact for about five to 10 seconds, gaze away and look back again.
  • Relax. Loosen up! The more relaxed you appear, the more comfortable the speaker will feel.

3. Wait your turn. If you're the type of person who has the tendency to interrupt the speaker before he or she finishes, you're not alone. One way to improve is by counting to three after the speaker finishes talking before you respond. The more you practice this exercise, the easier it'll be to wait your turn to speak.

4.  Demonstrate understanding and appreciation. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to talk with someone when all he or she does is give you blank stares in return. One of the keys of effective listening is acknowledging what the speaker says. Here are a few ways you can demonstrate understanding and appreciation for the speaker:

  • When listening, use positive phrases such as, "That's an interesting thought," or, "Thanks for bringing up that point."
  • Put yourself in the speaker's shoes and convey that you understand his or her feelings or ideas after he or she finishes speaking. Saying things like "that must make you feel like..." or sharing similar experiences you've had will make your colleague feel like you understand his or her situation.
  • Paraphrase the speaker's statement by saying, "so what I hear you saying is..." 

5. Ask questions. One of the best ways to improve your listening skills is by asking more questions. Your question can be as simple as "How are things going?" or "How's your job been lately?" In addition, ask your colleagues to speak up when they have issues or concerns and tell them that you'll always be available to listen to them and provide support.

Remember, of course, that listening takes work . . . you have to want to hear what your team members have to say. 

Published on: Nov 30, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.