How can business leaders improve their listening skills?

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How can business leaders improve their listening skills?

By Ian Chambers, CEO – Linea

For business leaders, active and focused listening often predicates effective organizational change. Whether you are dealing with colleagues, commercial partners, customers, or clients, it is a universal truth that people want to be listened to – and in doing so, knowledge can be gained, relationships built, and a strong rapport developed.

However, this is easier said than done in personal and professional terms. In a society of continuous messages and 24-hour media, we struggle to be heard and focused on getting our message across. This means that managers who think they are listening to those around them are often failing to do so in practice, potentially due to a flawed listening style that undermines their ability to learn.

As such, it is useful to examine the different listening styles that leaders adopt to understand where these problems may arise and seek ways to listen more effectively.

What does ineffective listening look like?

There are several different ways in which business leaders can listen to their colleagues, partners, and clients without actually hearing what they are saying or learning anything from the conversation:

  • Pseudo-Listening

Appearing attentive in conversation while ignoring or only partially listening to the other speaker. The intent of pseudo-listening is not to listen but to cater to some other personal need of the listener.

  • Stage Hog

Interested in expressing their ideas rather than listening to what others say on the subject. Stage hogs do not listen to the other person but give short speeches.

  • Selective Listening

Listening only to the parts of a message that interest them and rejecting or ignoring everything else. Selective listeners have their agenda of interesting and valuable topics and disregard or are disinterested in others’ agendas.

  • Filling the Gaps

Thinking they have heard the whole story, even when they have not. They manufacture information to fill in the gaps of incomplete information, distorting the intended message.

  • Assimilation to Prior Messages

Interpreting messages in terms of similar ideas remembered from the past. These listeners push, pull, chop and squeeze messages to ensure they are consistent with their prior understanding.

  • Insulated Listening

Actively avoiding or ignoring certain topics. Then, they will switch off when that topic arises in the conversation.

  • Defensive Listening

Taking innocent comments as personal attacks creates a perception of insecurity and a lack of confidence.

  • Ambush Listening

Listening carefully to collect information that can be used against the other person. They constantly seek to ambush and trap the other person in their ideas and words, usually to support a strong personal belief of their own, which causes others to be defensive around them.

  • Insensitive Listening

Not able to listen to the ideas of others beyond their face value. These people rarely pick up on hidden meanings or subtle nonverbal cues. 

You may recognize these behavior patterns in yourself or other members of your business leadership team. If this is the case, you should be aware that these habits will prevent you from gaining a deep understanding of the conversations you are having – and in some situations, will cause relationships to break down.

What does active listening look like?

For managers who recognize the failings in their listening styles, there are numerous ways to turn this around and adopt a more compassionate, active, and effective listening style that will help you to hear what others are saying when they speak and to incorporate these learnings into your corporate decision-making:

  • Accept the problem and prioritize improvement – solving any problem means first acknowledging its existence. You must recognize what the existing issues with the leadership team’s listening style are perceived to be – by soliciting feedback if needs be – and make it a priority to transform this aspect of your management culture.
  • Concentrate when people speak to you – managers often have many priorities competing for their attention, but these cannot be allowed to distract you when trying to listen to someone. When you are in a conversation, you must give them your undivided attention, resisting the temptation to respond to other messages or check on other devices – not only will this help the other person to feel heard, but it will also make it easier for you to pick up on their body language, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues.
  • Acknowledge, validate, and verify – the key to active listening is ensuring that you are active in the conversation and demonstrating that you are engaged by what is being said. This means acknowledging the other person’s statement and paraphrasing their meaning back to them to show you understand it; it also means asking clarifying questions and showing that you appreciate their point of view, even if you disagree with what they say.
  • Don’t rush to a solution – business leaders have a natural tendency to problem-solve and look for ways to overcome challenges, but this is not always conducive to effective listening. In addition, rushing to propose a solution may cause you to interrupt the person you are conversing with or cut them off before they have had a chance to detail all their ideas and feelings.
  • Do not assume you have the answers – professional conversations should never become an exercise in confirming your existing ideas. Even if you are speaking to someone less senior, you must be open to their contributions and the fact that they could know more about the situation they are discussing than you do – failing to do this will prevent you from understanding and learning.

By embracing a more active and empathetic approach to listening, you will be able to create a much better relationship with your colleagues and clients, helping to establish greater trust, mutual understanding, and appreciation, as well as a company culture in which these values are prioritized.

Ultimately, this will make your business and its leadership team more open-minded and capable of learning, driving innovation, and more informed decision-making. In this respect, better listening represents a rare gift to your business – a change that costs nothing but delivers tangible and sustainable gains at every level of the organization.

Ian Chambers is CEO of Linea, a change management and business improvement agency founded in 2004. Ian is a business improvement specialist with more than 20 years of experience leading complex operational and financial turnaround, transformation, and continuous improvement programs for organizations of all sizes.

How can business leaders improve their listening skills?