Great leaders are great listeners. Listening seems like such a basic human skill. Shouldn’t we all be doing it well by the time we join the workforce? You might think so, but in many places and interactions, the answer is no. In engagement surveys across industries, employees rate the feeling that they’re not being listened to as one of the top reasons they become disengaged.
Here are proactive things you can do to cultivate the discipline of good listening.
1. Stay focused and present
First, commit to being not 100% present but 110% present when you’re listening to someone speak because it’s easy to get distracted. The 10 points above 100% mean you are practicing self-awareness, discipline, and intention. Aside from making that conscious commitment, one way to do this is to make sure to carve out enough time to have real conversations, especially if it’s important. In a group setting, never rush the speaker. Allow them to finish their thought fully before moving on to the next person or giving your own response.
Leadership guru Simon Sinek takes it a step further and encourages leaders to “be the last to speak.” This sets the stage for everyone to be heard, to get all the contributions from the group, and it models respectful listening. It’s also an advantage in that you learn the opinions of others before you give yours.
2. Ask lots of questions
Don’t be afraid to be curious. Approach listening as an opportunity to learn. Asking questions gives the person talking a chance to express themselves fully, and it should lead to better information and better understanding. Asking questions helps you get clarity, making sure that you don’t walk away thinking that you know what the other person meant when, in fact, you may not.
The questions you might ask often naturally evolve from the conversation, but even simple open-ended questions can help. For example, you might ask, “Is there anything else I should know that I didn’t specifically ask you about?”
While the answer to this is often no, I’ve heard some surprising things as a result of this question. 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.
Stefano Lucchini, the RFK Human Rights Foundation of Italy chairman, champions the practice of asking himself questions in addition to asking others. He explains: “Before making decisions or speaking about the issues that I’m dealing with, I listen to others. Listening is central to compassion, as compassion involves doing others the service of attempting to understand. I anchor myself by thinking through a set of questions, like, What are they experiencing now in their life? This question helps with me gathering context. There is also, How might they deal with the problems we are discussing? This one helps me understand what they might contribute. Is it possible to do what we are discussing in another way? This helps me think laterally.
“Importantly,” Lucchini adds, “all of these questions place me in a position of using compassion, a sincere desire to understand how others are thinking. I firmly believe that doing so makes for better decisions, better communication, and better outcomes.”
3. Listen with empathy
With empathy, you perceive information through that person’s experience, in a more subjective manner. Do this in addition to hearing the information in a more objective manner. This is core to cultivating empathy in the listening process. The speaker will sense that you are being both objective to facts or data presented and subjective to her point of view about them. Combining both perspectives rounds out the understanding you end up with.
Empathy will always lead to better understanding for the listener in addition to making the speaker feel understood.
4. Pay attention to body language
Nonverbal analysis is more powerful than word analysis. Listening involves more than just spoken words. Never underestimate what is being expressed by the body language that accompanies spoken words. Does the body support or contradict the words being spoken? Is the speaker saying yes while shaking their head no? Are their arms crossed? Are they tapping their foot with impatience, or are they leaning forward with open posture and making eye contact?
You can add immensely to your understanding of what is being said by watching a person’s nonverbal cues, their movement, and the way they look at you (or do not). This is a much greater intensity of involvement because now you are watching somebody as well as listening to their words.
5. Confirm what you heard
Once you’ve done the work of points one through four, you still have to make sure that you got the speaker’s meaning and information right, that you and they share the same understanding. If they say, “No, you got it wrong,” ask more questions to clarify. If you fail to confirm, you may (and many leaders do) end up acting on incorrect assumptions. Repeat back what you think you heard often, to confirm it. This is a fundamental communication technique that will most often remove any chance that you get it wrong.
Saying, “If I understood correctly . . .” also serves to bolster the other person’s trust in you as someone they can speak to and be heard correctly by, and that you value their input enough to get it right. And do not be embarrassed to admit you got it wrong. You may discover your admission of missing the mark convinces the other person that you are actively listening.
Excerpt adapted from The Double Bottom Line: How Compassionate Leaders Captivate Hearts and Deliver Results, Fast Company Press, April 2022.
Donato Tramuto and Tami Booth Corwin are the authors of The Double Bottom Line: How Compassionate Leaders Captivate Hearts and Deliver Results (April 2022). Tramuto is a global health activist, former CEO of Tivity Health, and founder of the TramutoPorter Foundation. Booth Corwin is a veteran publishing and media executive, recognized in The Wall Street Journal’s “50 Women to Watch list for “leading a striking turnaround” at Rodale’s book division.