In my many years of consulting with business leaders and entrepreneurs, I have found that all of them realize the value of communication, in spreading the outbound message of mission and goals to their team and constituents. Yet, in their urgency to get things done, many forget to focus on really listening to input as an equally important part of their leadership role and image.
Recently, I was delighted to see an outline of actions constituting today's best practices for listening in a new book, The Double Bottom Line, by Donato Tramuto with Tami Booth Corwin. Tramuto brings his experience from many decades of business leadership in health care, with a focus on how compassionate leaders listen better, captivate hearts, and deliver more results.
I fully support and add my own perspective to his short list of secrets to successful listening, paraphrased below. These are proactive things all of us can do to turn listening into understanding, strengthen relationships, facilitate engagement, and better decisions:
1. Stay fully attentive, focused, and do not interrupt.
Effective listening first requires that you carve out enough time for a real conversation, without trying to multitask or rush the speaker. I find that good leaders are often the last to speak, and are proactive in giving the stage to other members of the group, to learn their opinion before offering yours.
We all know people who are passive listeners, meaning they only pretend to listen while their mind is really somewhere else. This leads to a lot of missed information, and is certainly noticed as lack of interest and respect by the person speaking.
2. Approach listening as an opportunity to learn.
This normally means asking lots of questions to get clarity, better information, and a better understanding of other perspectives. Not only do the questions themselves yield information that can lead to better understanding, but also the process of asking them helps you be more engaged.
For example, although Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is most certainly an idea guy himself, he attributes much success to listening and learning from his team. He didn't initially agree with many of their ideas, but supported them and saw real success.
3. Listen with empathy to understand perspective.
Empathy will always lead to better understanding for the listener, in addition to making the speaker feel understood. You perceive information through that person's experience, in a more subjective manner. The result is a better relationship, trust, and a willingness to follow your leadership decision.
Every brand, like Ferrari, needs listening empathy to understand who their customer is on a human level and what drives their behaviors. They need to put passion into a product they know resonates with the feeling, as well as content, a customer wants to experience.
4. Note body language to hear non-verbal content.
You can add immensely to your understanding of what is being said by watching a speaker's non-verbal cues, their movement, and the way they look at you (or do not). This is a much greater level of engagement, because you are now watching someone as well as listening to their words.
Research has shown that 60 to 90 percent of our communication with others is non-verbal, which means the body language you may be ignoring is extremely important. As a business leader, how can you make good decisions with less than half the real input?
5. Summarize back what you have heard to confirm.
If you fail to confirm, you may (and many leaders do) end up acting on incorrect assumptions or your own biases. You should never be embarrassed to admit you didn't hear it right, since that admission will convince the speaker you have been actively listening, and willing to hear other input.
In all cases, you must focus on avoiding the common listening mistakes of pretending to listen while your mind is somewhere else, formulating a reply instead of listening, or applying your own views and biases while still listening. This is all part of today's need to put people first, and maintaining a balance between strong financial results and a positive impact on community.
In my experience, the days of "command and control" business leaders are gone. Through the internet and social media, all constituents know who you are, and how you operate. They quickly migrate to companies and leaders who show compassion and empathy, as well as results and the ability to change. It's not too late to learn and adapt, and bring your team with you. Start now.