When we think of great leaders, we often think about individuals who give speeches that motivate action, but in addition to being great speakers, great leaders are also great listeners. Taylor Berens Crouch, doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Maryland, says being a good listener is crucial to being a great leader.
"If we’re trying to lead people in a direction that they want, it’s absolutely necessary that we understand people’s desires and perspectives and thoughts, and listening is necessary to get that information," says Crouch.
Follow these six habits of great listeners:
Being present to hear what the speaker is saying is essential to being a good listener, says Crouch. While most of us know it’s rude to pick up our cell phones to respond to a text or check email while engaging in a conversation, avoiding internal distractions are much more difficult.
"If you’re really mindful, you’re in the moment. You’re focusing on what the other person is saying and avoiding the natural inclination and temptation to judge, predict, and evaluate," says Crouch.
Being a mindful listener means avoiding getting distracted by your own thoughts. Pay careful attention to the thoughts swimming around in your head while listening to someone else. Are you thinking about the dinner you’re cooking tonight? If so, you’re not mindfully listening.
In order to avoid awkward silences and gaps in conversation, often we will formulate our response to someone while they’re still speaking. This, says Crouch, gets in the way of effective listening. Instead, take a pause after the speaker is finished to think about your response.
"If we want to think thoughtfully about what someone is saying, that pause can be really important to collect our thoughts, and prepare what we want to say," says Crouch. Doing all that while the other person is speaking means you’ll inevitably miss something they’ve said.
To ensure they’re interpreting the speaker’s information correctly, good listeners practice what's called reflective listening, which means that they avoid responding right away and instead paraphrase what was just said. This gives the speaker the opportunity to say, "Yes, you’re really hearing me," or, "No, that’s not quite right." Reflective listening not only shows the speaker that you’re truly engaged and interested in understanding them, but avoids the opportunity for misunderstandings.
How many times have you gone into a meeting with someone thinking you know exactly how the conversation is going to go? Perhaps you’ve already had the conversation in your head before you’ve even given the other person a chance to speak. Great listeners go into a conversation with an authentic desire to understand, rather than preconceived notions or judgments about what the other person is going to say.
"We tend to think that we understand where people are coming from before they even start speaking," says Crouch. Great listeners, she says, have a willingness to be humble and accept that they don’t know what someone else is thinking, even if that someone else is as close to us as our spouse. Great listeners, Crouch says, let go of assumptions and put themselves in a position of being curious and open to hearing what the other person has to say.
Listening can be challenging and uncomfortable. Sometimes you’re forced to hear things that you don’t agree with. "We have a desire to step away from that discomfort by defending ourselves or offering our viewpoint," says Crouch, but resisting the urge to interrupt is a critical skill for a good listener to adopt.
The way you position your physical self lets the speaker know whether you’re engaged in the conversation. When actively listening, lean slightly forward, make eye contact, and give the occasional nod to show you’re interested. Avoid using your body as a physical barrier by crossing your arms or covering your face with your hands.