Listening: Leadership’s New Power Tool
I recently had occasion to speak with a group of sales executives, and I made the point that the art of listening is one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of any business development professional, but more often than not, it is sorely neglected, omitted or ignored.
I told my audience that the two most successful sales professionals I knew were, in fact, rather cerebral introverts. They had good interpersonal skills, were powerful listeners and, as a result, they had an amazing ability to connect with their clients. Their customers, in turn, felt understood and heard.
Listening is also a powerful skill in leadership development, yet it can be elusive as well. In early childhood, we learn how to speak, and how to write and read, but never, ever, were we taught how to listen; to attend closely with intent to hear.
The case for more effective listening is compelling. Research shows that successful negotiators and problem-solvers listen twice as much as they speak. But listening is not easy. It has been said that, without training in effective listening, we comprehend only 25% of what we hear. That is because the average person speaks at some 200 words per minute, while most people think at four times that rate. So, picture a manager meeting with a staff member who is explaining a problem with, say, the new software. As that person speaks, where does that manager’s mind go? It’s on a journey through other matters and constantly looking for exit ramps.
If listening is such a powerful tool that can enhance our leadership and business acumen, why do we not spend more time perfecting the art? The reason is because we get hung up. According to Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, most of us do not listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply. We trip on our own petard.
So, what do great listeners do? In my experience, they work at maintaining eye contact, and they lean toward the person who’s talking. They don’t interrupt. Rather, they say “Keep going,” or reiterate the message: “So, what I hear you saying is…” We should listen to learn, versus listening to win the argument.
Given our present realities, most of us are conducting business through video conferencing, and it would be a fair challenge to suggest that active listening is rendered really difficult through a Zoom screen. It is indeed very different from listening to someone in person, but just because something is difficult does not mean it’s impossible, especially with preparation beforehand. Remove distracting clutter around your computer, turn off your phone and put it aside, and consider wearing headphones — they are a great attention aid. During the call, to the extent possible, focus on the speaker’s face. Depending on screen-sharing and the number of people on the call, you may or may not have the advantage of eye contact.
Whether speaking in person or relying on technology, leaders today who perfect the art of listening to their employees are in a much better position to lead the increasingly diverse and multigenerational workforce. Those who embrace the art of listening — and it is an art — are destined to be better and more effective leaders. The simple fact of the matter is that, by improving listening skills, we encourage stronger and better communication between leader and team, reinforcing the fact that team members feel valued, which in turn drives employee engagement.
As my mother used to tell me, you can’t listen with your mouth open.