I spend a lot of time asking employees about how leaders can be more effective communicators. Just yesterday, in fact, I moderated a focus group with employees at a fast-growing consumer products company.

The people in the group provided the same feedback I hear time and time again: Leaders are pretty good at sharing information, but they're lousy listeners.

As a leader myself, I know how hard it is to slow down and actually pay attention to what your team member is saying, especially when you're thinking about the 87 other issues you have to address and you're pretty sure you already know how to solve the team member's problem.

But you can't be a great leader if you're a terrible listener. As Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning write in How to Communicate, "Listening is a commitment and a compliment."

"It's a commitment to understanding how other people feel, how they see their world. It means putting aside your own prejudices and beliefs, your anxieties and self-interest, so that you can step behind the other person's eyes."

And listening is a compliment because it says to the other person, "I care about what's happening to you; your life and experience are important."

What's the most effective way to become a better listener? Identify the barriers that prevent you from listening effectively--and then use one important strategy for overcoming those barriers. The 5 most common listening barriers for leaders are:

1. Mind-reading.

As McKay, Davis, and Fanning write, "The mind-reader is trying to figuring out what the other person is really thinking and feeling... (paying) less attention to words than to intonations and subtle cues in an effort to see through to the truth."

2. Filtering.

You listen to some things and not to others. A common way that leaders filter is to avoid hearing "certain things--particularly anything threatening, negative, critical, or unpleasant. It's as if the words were never said: You simply have no memory of them."

3. Judging.

This is a major challenge for leaders--especially when dealing with people you perceive to be "problem" employees. "If you prejudge someone as stupid or nuts or unqualified, you don't pay much attention to what that person says." You know you're judging if you've made up your mind before you hear the content of the message.

4. Advising.

This one has me written all over it. McKay, Davis, and Fanning describe the barrier this way: "You are the great problem solver, ready with help and suggestions. You don't have to hear more than a few sentences before you begin searching for the right advice. However, while you are cooking up suggestions... you may miss what's most important." Ouch.

5. Being right.

Another weakness for leaders: You go to any lengths to avoid being wrong. "You can't listen to criticism, you can't be corrected, and you can't take suggestions to change. Your convictions are unshakable." Of course, it's entirely possible that you're completely wrong, but you don't want to listen to that possibility.

Now that you've admitted you have a problem, here's the simple thing you need to do differently: actively listen using the familiar technique of "paraphrasing." You probably learned this method in school or in a leadership course; paraphrasing simply means "to state in your own words what you think someone just said."

The authors of How to Communicate believe that paraphrasing is "absolutely necessary to good listening. It keeps you busy trying to understand and know what the other person says, rather than blocking."

Paraphrase by using such lead-ins as:

  • "What I hear you saying is..."
  • "In other words..."
  • "So basically, how you felt is . . ."
  • "Let me understand; what was going on for you was..."
  • "What happened was . . ."
  • "Do you mean..."

McKay, Davis, and Fanning recommend you paraphrase "every time someone says something of any importance to you. When you do, you'll find it much harder to mind read, filter, judge, advise, or even cling to being right."

As a result, the people talking to you will actually feel like you're listening--and they'll appreciate your careful attention.