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How much do you miss because you never learned to listen effectively? Listening is a skill. And like any other skill, it must be learned, practiced and improved if it is to serve you well. If “knowledge is power,” then there is power in listening. IBM’s Thomas Watson, Sr. believed that “listening is one of the best ways to learn.” In the process, a great deal more knowledge is gained. With this knowledge, you can make better decisions, solve more problems, and be more responsive to situations and clients.
Research with experts consistently reveals that superior leaders ask a great many questions and then listen intently for the answers. In fact, their highly developed listening skills are one reason they became outstanding performers, and why they continue to get better. Experts listen to gather facts, understand how something can be done, how it can be done differently, and most importantly, how it can be done better than it is currently being done. They listen in order to act.
Listening is not only integral to learning, but crucial for building relationships with people for whom you depend upon for your success—coworkers, clients, friends, and family. Understanding the viewpoints of others is a critical key for effectively working with others in healthy and productive relationships. It is only by learning to listen that one can listen to learn.
Three Steps to Listen Like a Leader
Step One: Get People Talking.
Passive listeners wait until spoken to or begin conversations by expressing their personal point of view. In contrast, active listeners know that everyone has something to teach them, so they go after it through questions and interviews. Learn to ask questions that get people talking about the topics they know best.
Once you get someone talking, ask yourself: what is this person really trying to tell me?, how can I help her or him explain the significance of what they are saying?, and how can I help them articulate what they mean so I can better understand and appreciate their viewpoint? With your eyes locked on the speaker, encourage people to talk by asking probing questions that seek clarification and detail.
Step Two: Seek to Understand.
In his classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote that effective people “seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” Covey makes the point that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand, but with the intent to reply.” When we listen with the intent to reply, we are merely waiting for the opportunity to promote our opinions–but not gain anything new from the conversation. We do a disservice to the speaker, for we are wasting their time as their attempts to inform us fall on unreceptive ears, and we do a disservice to ourselves, because we fail to receive a potentially valuable gift the speaker is offering. Interestingly, leading experts studied by my company have consistently reported that they will listen to anyone–even rank beginners or those outside their field, because as one expert told us “You never know who is going to have the next great idea.” Good listeners develop the skills of concentrating on the statements a speaker makes and summarizing what was said. In summarizing, a listener recognizes the speaker’s key points. Some people find it helpful to review these points with the speaker by saying, “Let me see if I understand what you are telling me…”
Leadership listening requires actively accepting the speakers’ remarks rather than making reactive judgments. Some call this keeping an open mind. Speakers are far less prone to provide people with information if they believe the person is constantly judging them. When speakers feel the listener truly seeks to understand and accept, they are more inclined to honestly share their thoughts and feelings. Consider the advantage of a leader who fully understands the needs, perspectives and experiences of those they lead over the leader who simply seeks to press their opinion upon their subordinates.
Step Three: Seek Application.
The final step to leadership listening is to apply your newly acquired knowledge. Once the points are understood, next consider how the information just gleaned may help to solve a current problem, improve an existing situation or stimulate something entirely new. This final step will not only help you remember what was said, but will help you make effective use of your newfound knowledge. Research studies have consistently found that expert leaders have a superior ability to recall and remember information because they find immediate application for what they heard or read. Leadership listening provides leads to a steady stream of ideas for the leader and feelings of being understood and appreciated by those they lead.
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About the Author – Paul G. Schempp
Dr. Schempp, president of Performance Matters, Inc., is a professional speaker, coach and consultant. Paul has more than 25 years of experience in the fields of research, teaching and professional development. Individuals and organizations in business, education and sport have elevated their expertise and achieved exceptional performance by working with Dr. Schempp.
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