Good leaders are great listeners.

June 11, 2013

Have you ever glanced at your email while talking with someone in your office? Or picked up your iPhone to check a text during a conversation? If you’re honest, your answers to both questions is likely yes. We’ve all done it at some point.

Communication is one of the most important skills in life. And while at least half of the communication equation involves listening, most of us have little or no training in listening – really listening. In fact, various listening studies have shown that we remember between 25% and 50% of what we hear. Leaders understand the power of great listening.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey explains the importance of listening in the fifth habit: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Giving your undivided attention to another person demonstrates a very high level of respect. Conversely, when you fail to listen, you’re saying:

  • You don’t matter.
  • I don’t care about you.
  • Your ideas don’t matter.
  • You’re wrong.
  • I don’t understand you.
  • I don’t want to understand you.
  • You’re stupid.
  • I’m too busy.
  • You’re wasting my time.
  • All of the above.

In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith offers the following listening tips:

  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Don’t finish the other person’s sentences.
  • Don’t say “I knew that.”
  • Don’t even agree with the other person (even if he praises you, just say “Thank you”).
  • Don’t use the words “no,” “but,” and “however.”
  • Don’t be distracted. Don’t let your eyes wander elsewhere while the person is talking.
  • Maintain your end of the conversation by asking intelligent questions that (a) show you’re paying attention, (b) move the conversation forward, and (c) require the other person to talk (while you listen).
  • Eliminate any striving to impress the other person with how smart or how funny you are. Your only aim is to let the other person feel that he or she is accomplishing that.

Goldsmith also sets forth a simple exercise to improve your listening skills: Close your eyes and count to 50. Do not let another thought creep into your mind. Maintain the count. Try it. How far did you get?

This exercise demonstrates just how easily we can be distracted when we are not talking. It also helps develop your “concentration muscles” and the ability to focus. Do this exercise regularly until you can count to 50 without interrupting yourself. When you can do this, your listening skills will improve dramatically.

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