Listening is a vital skill that enhances communication, relationships and productivity.  It affects leaders’ ability to influence, persuade and negotiate. Active listening prevents misunderstandings and conflict and leads to better outcomes overall. To be properly listened to is engaging, motivating and promotes better thinking.

In his talk ‘5 Ways to Listen Better, Julian Treasure, an expert who studies sound and communication, states that we spend 60 percent of our time listening but only retain 25 percent of what we hear.  He says that the art of listening can be broken down into four simple steps summarised by the acronym RASA:

  1. Receive – the first step in listening which emphasises the importance of paying attention.
  2. Appreciate – showing you are engaged by making simple gestures such as nodding or making subtle sounds.
  3. Summarise – paraphrasing or summing up what you heard and relaying it back to the speaker to demonstrate your understanding and gain clarity. For example, ‘So what you are saying is…?’
  4. Ask – once steps 1 – 3 are complete, now is the time to talk and engage more with the speaker, asking questions to further explore the topic and/or seek clarity on any points you want to understand more deeply.

Follow these steps to improve your listening skills as a leader:

1. Stick to the 80/20 rule

The 80/20 principle is where you listen for 80% and only speak for 20% of the time. Invest your full attention and energy into allowing the other person to tell you their ideas and solutions, and concentrate on understanding what they are telling you. The speaker doesn’t want to be interrupted, they want to tell you what they think, feel or need. If you spend too much time thinking about what you want to say, instead of actively listening to the speaker, you might miss crucial information, appear disinterested, and negatively impact the success of the discussion. It is critical that leaders remain fully engaged during conversations to understand the message and to demonstrate respect to others.  Remember, talking is only a small component of the communication process.

2. Don’t be afraid of silence

Silent pauses in conversations can make leaders feel uncomfortable, but silence allows time to think, absorb and internalise what has been discussed. Silence can provide space for new ideas to emerge.  It also creates the opportunity to observe non-verbal behaviour, in yourself as well as in the other person, e.g. what are you communicating through your facial expression and your body language, and what are you picking up from the other’s non-verbal clues?

3. Eliminate distractions

To have productive, successful conversations you must eliminate distractions. A simple gesture such as checking your phone can throw the discussion off course and alienate the other person. Put away your phone, switch off your screen and give the other the undivided attention they deserve. Make sure you are holding important conversations in quiet locations where you know you won’t be disturbed. Get organised, schedule conversations in advance and make them a priority.

4. When the time is right, ask questions

Asking questions is an essential part of the communication process, as long as you’re asking the right questions at the right time. Questions demonstrate interest in learning more and show that you are keen to ensure you understand. Leaders don’t have all the answers and can always learn from others. Asking questions can help steer the conversation in the right direction and keep you on topic. They can help to slow down a conversation and deepen the thinking.  Powerful questions are short, open and neutral.

5. Stop talking!

This is not just about speaking less and listening more, but also silencing the voices in your head. Do your best to remain fully engaged and to quieten the voice in your mind eager to ask questions or make comments. Refrain from focusing on what you want to say and think about this once the person is finished. Don’t cut them off in mid-sentence.

Active listening is an essential skill for leaders, and can be achieved with practice and perseverance. It helps leaders to earn the respect and trust of their team, understand issues, come up with better solutions and diffuse conflict.

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