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Really Listening

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By Keith Barnwell

“Courage is what is takes to stand up and speak and courage is what it takes to sit down and listen” – Winston Churchill

Listening is one of your most important leadership skills and has a major impact on the quality of your relationships with others, and leadership is all about the quality of the relationships that you create with those around you.  The management guru ,Peter Drucker, called listening the “first competence of leadership.”  Most of us are very poor listeners; studies show we only remember 30%-60% of what we hear and are often so distracted with our own thoughts we don’t even bother to absorb the 30%!

Perhaps more importantly some studies suggest that less than 50% of communication is verbal (not the oft misquoted 7%), with the remainder


made up of other factors such as body language and tone of voice. Whilst experts disagree on just what the figure is, they all agree that a large part of communicating is non-verbal.  This means that if you are committed to listening to others you must be totally present in the conversation and giving them your full attention.  In reality, this isn’t always possible; so when you are distracted on other responsibilities tell them so and agree to meet at a time when you are available to listen properly to what they have to say.

You can become a better listener by practicing “active listening“, where you make a conscious effort not only to hear the words but, more importantly, to understand the complete message, including paying attention to non-verbal communication such as body language and tone of voice.

Tips to help you become an active listener:

Maintain eye contact and watch out for inconsistent body language that indicates discomfort or conflict with the words being used and remember Peter Drucker’s comment that “the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

Stay focused on what the person is saying. Don’t multi-task by looking at papers, your smart phone, emails or other people during your conversation; it’s disrespectful and indicates that what they’re saying is not as important as your other activities. Let them know that you care what they think, even if you may not agree with them.

Show them that you’re listening, e.g. a nod of the head or a smile. Use your own body language and tone of voice to acknowledge you’re listening.

Reflect back what they are saying to confirm you understand. “What I’m hearing is…” and “It sounds as if you are saying…” are good ways of doing this.

Ask questions – Who, What, Why, How? This helps them crystallise their thoughts if they’re nervous or uncomfortable speaking.

Stop thinking of your response! Too often we use the time when others are talking to prepare what we’ll say next, sometimes just so we can sound smart or be funny … and we’ve stopped listening.

Even angry people need to be listened to. Give them space to express their anger. Don’t try to solve their problem immediately – they may just need to be heard.  Encourage them to find their own answers and help them to see the effect their anger may have on those around them. Once you start thinking of people as just being ‘difficult’ you will stop really hearing them.

Don’t interrupt, it’s a waste of time. It frustrates the speaker and is bad manners. Allow them to have their say and treat them the way you’d like to be treated.

Respond appropriately: active listening is about respect and understanding. You’re gaining information and perspective; you add nothing by attacking the speaker or putting them down. Be candid in your response and put your opinions forward respectfully.

Why Am I Talking (WAIT): if you find yourself frequently leading the conversation and others don’t speak up much in your presence, think ‘WAIT’ and give others a chance. You may be surprised at what you’ll learn!

Become aware of your personal style of communicating and the unique style of others around you. Embrace the different styles and learn how to best exploit them. For example, whilst a bit of a generalisation, some extroverts enjoy sharing thoughts and opinions, whereas some introverts require time to reflect before giving a considered response.  Learn to allow time for silence – it can be a powerful communication tool all on its own.

Active listening will instantly improve your communication skills – you’ll enjoy better relationships, create positive and lasting impressions with those around you, and become a better leader.

Thank you for reading and please share this post with others who you think may find it helpful.

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This is an extract from the LeaderFocus App for the iPad available on iTunes.  To learn more and to download the LeaderFocus App click on the icon.  Keith Barnwell is a leadership development specialist and executive coach at It’s All About Leadership