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We all know that good communication skills are important for leaders. Too often we focus on the outgoing part of communication – the speaking or the writing.

But the incoming part of communication is possibly even more important, which includes listening.

In this post, I’ll take a look at some simple and practical ways to listen better at work, so you can build better relationships and support your team.

Why Do We Need to Listen Better?

Good communication is a two-way process, but it all starts with listening.

Listening provides you with understanding.

Understanding is a key foundation of good leadership. When you understand where people are coming from, you’ll be able to adapt to better suit the situation.

When people talk and we don’t listen, we lose that understanding. This means we are at risk of taking action which is at odds with what people are telling us.

This in turn means that we can lose credibility, as we are perceived as failing to take into account the needs of others. Over time, we may lose trust or be seen as a self-absorbed leader who is only interested in our own goals.

Unfortunately, listening is not as easy as it sounds. There are many workplace distractions that can derail us, in addition to the self-talk in our own heads.

From a practical perspective, listening helps you understand what your people need, and what actions to take. But on top of that is the trust-building aspect, where listening helps shows that you care about the people around you.

Learn More:  The Power of Paying Attention.

Being Able to Listen Better Starts With You

It may seem as if better listening starts by focusing on the speaker. As with many aspects of leadership, I believe it’s actually important to start with yourself first.

Taking note of your own personal tendencies when it comes to listening is important. These will help you to identify your potential limitations and of course, your strengths.

So how do we do this?

To Listen Better, Start With These Personal Characteristics

One starting point I find useful are the characteristics which underpin the common DISC psychometric assessment.

DISC is divided into four quadrants, by two axes.

The axes are based on a range of characteristics from:

  • Task-focused to People-focused; and
  • Introverted to extroverted.

You can see them illustrated below, along with some of the potential tendencies that I’ve included within each quadrant.

To use this, you’d simply plot where you think you are on the two different axes, which should land you in one of the quadrants.

And yes, it’s possible (and common) to be somewhere in the middle, but we’re going to keep it simple here.

Listening DISC 2

Once again, these types of models are only a guide. Use them as a starting point, and always question them to see whether they are true for you.

After all, everyone is different, and made up of many different factors within their own personal iceberg.

Even though these models aren’t perfectly accurate, I find them useful to help people gain a perspective of some of the different types or styles of people they might find out in the world.

How to Interpret the Quadrants

Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics of each of the quadrants.

The top-left is often known as Direct or Dominance. In this category, listeners are likely to appreciate direct communication, limited “waffling” and would like people to get straight to the point.

At the top-right is Influence. These listeners are likely to enjoy fun stories and being entertained, and are more likely to struggle when it comes to boring or slower-paced conversations.

Moving to the bottom-left is the Conscientious quadrant. Here, listeners are likely to be interested in detail, and sticking to the facts and logic, rather than worrying too much about emotions.

On the bottom-right comes the Steadiness quadrant. These listeners are supportive, like to help and provide a stable, calm environment.

These simple groupings can provide insight on a few things.

Firstly, our focus areas. These are likely to be the topics, content or other aspects of the conversation that pique our interests. We may tend to pay more attention to these parts, while ignoring or missing others.

Next, this model can help us identify our potential listening shortcomings. Extroverts may be more engaging and social, but may focus more on getting their point across than on listening.

Introverts may be stereotypically good listeners – but may be susceptible to being stuck in their own heads, listening to their own self-talk.

Tips to Listen Better

We’ve started off with a simple model to help you identify your own listening characteristics.

Now, let’s get to the simple tips to hopefully help you improve!

1. Listen Better by Removing Distractions

Potential distractions are all around us in the workplace, which makes listening a challenge.

Distracted LeaderBeing a human makes it a challenge too, with the average attention span being roughly 8 seconds.

Because of this, we need to cut down our potential distractions as much as we can.

Start by putting your devices on “do not disturb” or silent mode, or turning off notifications. Nothing screams “I’m not interested” as much as looking at your phone when someone is talking to you.

Close the laptop, put the phone facedown, and yes, even mute your smart watch.

This will give you the best chance at actually listening, while also sending a message that you are providing your undivided attention.

Use your environment to your advantage, too. Where possible, position yourself where you can’t see people moving around. This will help you to remain focused on the speaker.

When I’m coaching in-person at a workplace, I’m often in a meeting room with a few big glass walls. I’ll always sit with my back to the glass walls, where possible. This means less stuff moving in and out of my eye line, making for fewer distractions.

2. Listen Better by Making the Time

When someone needs to speak to you, make sure you have the time to listen.

If you’re just about to run to another meeting, you won’t be in a great headspace to listen – you’ll be wanting the conversation to wrap up as soon as possible.

There are a few ways to handle this. Firstly, you can let the person know how much time you have so they know what to expect.

Or, you could ask to defer the conversation to when you have more time to pay proper attention. You could also cancel your commitments if you know the conversation is an important one.

The point is, try not to “cram in” your listening to a space which is too small for it. You’ll come off seeming rushed, inconsiderate and potentially disrespectful.

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Learn More:  Too Busy at Work? Try These 5 Things.

3. Remember It’s Not About You

Listening in leadership is not really about you.

Yes, you are listening to understand more about a person or situation.

But you are doing this, ideally, so that you can provide greater support or assistance.

People have a tendency to relate what they are hearing to their own personal experiences. When someone tells you about their car accident, we start to think of that time when we also had an accident.

Then, if we aren’t careful, we’ve changed the conversation to be about how we handled our car accident five years ago.

This unfortunately makes us look quite self-absorbed.

Talking about ourselves feels good (according to research), but unfortunately, it’s taking the focus from the important act of listening.

4. Listen Better by Trying Not to Solve the Problem

We are all full of advice. When someone has a problem, we can think of a solution.

Why is it so easy and attractive to come up with solutions for other people’s problems?

Because we have no accountability or attachment to them, so we don’t need to live with the consequences!

It feels helpful and supportive to give someone “the answer”. But in reality, sometimes the answer doesn’t really help them.

Providing answers to people reduces their own accountability for the solution, and also assumes that we know their situation better than they do.

In coaching, I tend not to give advice at all. Instead, I help people think differently about their situation by asking questions.

I save all my advice for when I write articles and publish podcasts, so I can get it out of my system 😀.

You can do the same, because a big part of active listening is asking questions to clarify your understanding of what’s being said, and to help people elaborate on their chosen topic.

One way to prevent falling into the solution trap is to simply ask the person:

“What would you like from me during this conversation?”

They might just want someone to listen, to act as a sounding board, or to give your opinion on what they say. And yes, they might want you to give them some advice.

But at least if you ask, you’ll know what they’d like from you, and you don’t need to guess.

Learn More: Coaching Employees? Try These Tips.

5. Listen Better by Monitoring Your Own Listening Habits

Reflection is a useful tool, and why not reflect on your own listening habits?

Some aspects of listening to reflect on are:

  • Instances when you were tempted to jump in with your own solution or story
  • Times when you felt bored or impatient
  • Your own self-talk while the other person was speaking; or
  • Distractions that took your focus away from the speaker.

Of course, in the moment these things can be tough to monitor, but that’s what reflection is for.

If you’d like to improve your listening, spend a few minutes taking note of how you listened. This will hopefully provide you with insights about your own listening habits, so you can improve them for next time.

Listening Matters, So Let’s Get Better at It

Communication is only becoming more challenging, in my opinion.

Increasing work pressures, distributed workforces, new technologies and time-poor people means more distractions, with more frazzled people struggling to pay attention.

But let’s not forget that good listening sends a powerful message to your team that you’re interested in what they have to say.

And sometimes, that’s enough to make people feel like they matter, and to want to come to work.

What are your tips for better listening? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!

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