One of the most common leadership weaknesses is hearing without listening, to steal a phrase from Simon and Garfunkel’s powerful song Sounds of Silence. As I meet with teams and leaders every week it is interesting how many times I watch people display poor listening skills. I actually find it very helpful to observe others because it helps me improve my own listening skills.
Two of the most important times leaders need to practice good listening skills are in team meetings and when meeting one-on-one with team members. So enhancing our listening skills is an area of continuous improvement.
Symptoms of Poor Listening Skills. Two of the most common symptoms of poor listening I observe are interrupting and failing to ask questions, choosing instead to talk and give own opinions. When we do this we miss an opportunity to dig deeper into an issue and discover the best solutions.
Amy Morin in her Inc. Magazine article 9 Mistakes That Make You a Bad Listener lists poor listening behaviors described by Matthew McKay. These are the nine behaviors:
- Mind Reading – Making assumptions about what the other person thinks or feels instead of asking questions.
- Rehearsing – Instead of listening we start forming our response, even rehearsing what we’re going to say.
- Filtering – Zoning in on the points that reinforce our argument and ignoring or discounting facts that do not.
- Daydreaming – Very common in lengthy conversations and causes us to miss important details.
- Judging – Passing judgment and labeling the other person can keep us from truly listening with an open mind.
- Advising – Jumping in to offer a solution prevents us from gathering more information.
- Debating – If you find yourself debating, realize you now can’t listen effectively.
- Placating – When you say things like, “Yes, you’re right,” without putting in an effort to understand may be a symptom you have checked-out. This may make the other person feel dismissed.
- Derailing – This is when we change the subject back to something we want to discuss or to avoid diving into a tough topic. While this might work in the short-term, it will likely re-surface in the longer term.
Five Tips for Effective Listening. The first step toward improving your listening skills is awareness. Keep the nine listening mistakes in the back of mind and recognize when they are happening to you in the moment. Then try using one or more of these tips.
- Begin by turning-on your Mindful Listening switch. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” This also means for we impatient folks, slow down, and be patient and attentive.
- Remove distractions. Turn-off or put away smartphones. Close your laptop. If possible move to a space that is free of things that will distract you. For example, if you are a people watcher, like me, you need to make sure you are positioned so you cannot see others, only the person(s) you are speaking with. (I did this yesterday in Panera Bread, I sat facing the other people with only a wall on the other side of them.)
- Manage your brain’s excess capacity. Most people speak at a pace of 125 words a minute, but our brains like to think at a rate of 400 words a minute. This means your brain is only using about 30 percent of its capacity in the moment to simply process the spoken words. We should use the other 70 percent to empathize and understand meaning. We can watch body language. I have a colleague who uses the excess time to write notes of exactly what people say in certain moments. This helps him construct follow-up questions.
- Ask questions. Instead of making your own statements, ask questions. The purpose of your questions is to unearth information and feelings that are in that moment hiding just below the surface. I learned years ago that truth may reside at the end of your fifth “why” question – this means sometimes we have to ask five questions to get to a core issue. If you cannot think of an effective question, try summarizing what the person has just said and ask them if you have understood the issue correctly. Then ask questions that help them discover causes of issues and then their solutions.
- Ask for “listening feedback.” Depending on the conversation, I suggest you periodically ask for feedback from the other people about how well you listened. You could ask:
- Is there anything you said that I might have missed?
- As you reflect on this conversation do you have one suggestion for how I could have been a more effective listener?
One recommendation for learning about your listening skills is to take this 10 minute “listening” self-assessment from the Psychology Today website. As you take the assessment note the 33 questions you are asked, these will give you insights into additional attributes of good listening – attributes that will help you listen, not just hear.