Lets face it: we are smack in the middle of a relationship economy, where branding strategies, customer satisfaction, recruitment processes and employee engagement are built on trust and authenticity.

And whatever high-tech communication strategy or gadget you're employing to make your life easier, a more human (and very neglected, I might add) skill will be a difference maker if you master it.

I speak of listening as the foundation of communication and the key to building strong relationships. Not exactly a breakthrough a-ha moment, is it? Read on.

With technology and social media ruling our lives, we are becoming less opportunistic in developing our listening skills, and less socially aware of its effect on business as a competitive advantage.

The study of Servant Leadership over the last thirty years reminds us of the importance of listening (and the practice of mindfulness) as a business practice.

Servant-leaders, in case you just woke up from a deep sleep in a hyperbaric chamber, focus on growing and empowering people, and paying attention to the needs of all stakeholders. Lets all agree that this cannot be done without great listening.

In Robert Greenleaf's legendary essay, The Servant as Leader, he said that "only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first."

Want high-performance in your employees? Want customers to be giddy about your offering? Scholars all agree that listening gives you this edge.

Organizational Conversation

Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind make the need for good listening even more evident in their research published in the book Talk, Inc.

They found that the most effective leaders in over 100 companies employ the principles of "organizational conversation." The secret? Operate your business as two people having a conversation, which most big companies don't.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Leadership is a Conversation, they state:

"Leaders who take organizational conversation seriously know when to stop talking and start listening. Few behaviors enhance conversational intimacy as much as attending to what people say. True attentiveness signals respect for people of all ranks and roles, a sense of curiosity, and even a degree of humility."

Authentic Listening

This is what I call authentic listening. It is the ability to understand what's happening on the other side of the fence; to identify the will of a group and help to clarify that will.

Peter Drucker once said, "The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said."

Authentic listeners have uncanny ability to listen intuitively to the other person's story, searching conversations for depth, meaning and understanding with the other person's needs in mind.

The listening has one overarching theme: how can I help the other person? This is a reflection of one's "giver" nature, as described by Adam Grant in his New York Times best-seller, Give and Take.

That reminds me of an informal poll I conducted on LinkedIn to find out what managers are doing wrong. I asked readers the question, "What is the ONE mistake leaders make more frequently than others?"

I received hundreds of responses, which I ranked and wrote about in 8 Mistakes that Employees Are Saying Managers Make.

Mistake #3 is plain and simple -- they don't listen. The lack of two-way communication -- sending without receiving -- was a clear regret for many.

9 Ways To Listen to Feedback Like a Boss

When was the last time you heard the sentiment of others -- customers or employees -- about how the business is doing? How YOU are doing? 

Accept the humble responsibility of finding out by inviting feedback and then listening. Then you can measure progress toward hitting your goals.

In Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, authors Don Frick and James Sipe describe nine helpful approaches when receiving feedback:

  1. Open. Listen without interruption, objections, or defensiveness.
  2. Responsive. Be willing to hear the speaker out without turning the table. Ask questions for clarification.
  3. Thoughtful. Seek to understand the effects and consequences of your behavior.
  4. Calm. Be relaxed, breath. Assume a comfortable body posture. Be aware of your own emotional reactions.
  5. Explicit. Make it clear what kind of feedback you are seeking, and why it is important to you. Offer a structure for the feedback -- questions, rating scales, stories.
  6. Quiet. Refrain from making or preparing to make a response. Do not be distracted by the need to explain, defend, or fix.
  7. Clear with your commitment. Describe how you have benefited from the feedback and what specific steps you will take toward improvement.
  8. Accepting. Be open to assuming their good will.
  9. Clarifying. Make sure you are clear about what they are seeing, saying, and recommending.

As you move forward, embrace relating to others with more curiosity and intent about those you serve. Treat it like a human experiment in your professional development journey, with listening as a key tool in your toolbox. Believe it!