Why listening is the mother of all leadership skills (and 4 ways to cultivate it)

Why listening is the mother of all leadership skills (and 4 ways to cultivate it)
The best leader I ever worked with was an exceptional listener. When he was in conversation with someone, he gave them his full, undivided attention. It was as if whoever he was speaking with was the only person in the room. It was a phenomenal thing to witness, let alone be a recipient of.

By doing this, not only did he empower his team to perform at their best, but the ripple effect of his listening abilities spread throughout the entire organisation.

When I broached the topic of his skill with him, he confided that early on in his life, he was the recipient of ‘deep listening’ from a teacher. It had such a profound impact on him, he vowed to cultivate this powerful (and unfortunately, rare) skill.

The more I learn about leadership, the more I have come to believe – with all my head, heart and soul – the most powerful tool for a leader to develop is the ability to listen.

I’m not talkin’ about “I’m only waiting for you to finish your bit so I can say my piece” listening. Or, “I have a million deadlines to meet so let’s wind this word-fest up real quick” listening. Or even, “let me stop you right there and tell you what to do so I feel clever” listening.

I mean deep listening - with full presence, attention and intention to understand.

If leaders practiced this type of deep listening with their team members, managers, customers, suppliers and each other, there would be an explosion of unleashed potential in organisations on a scale we have never seen before.

Research has found that listening effectively enables us to get more information from the people we manage. It increases trust, reduces conflict and enables a better understanding of how to motivate others. It inspires a higher level of commitment in the people we manage and the company we represent.

But deep, active listening with full presence, is also a rare jewel in organisations.

We listen to people at a rate of 125-250 words per minute, but think at 1,000-3,000 words per minute. Research shows that the average person listens at only about 25% efficiency.

Is this surprising?

When was the last time you had someone give you their full, undivided attention at work? Someone who just listened – without seeking to solve, put their slant on it, give you advice, interrupt, check their phone or start thinking about the next board report...  

Here are just four ways to cultivate this exceptional skill:

1. Ditch the distractions and look at the person

Put down your device of choice, make eye contact and give someone your complete attention. What message does it send to your team, let alone the person you’re talking to, if they sense you’re just not that into it?  

2. Suspend judgement

You can’t listen to understand if you are already crafting your response, or jumping to judgement mode. Truly empathetic listening cannot occur if you are positional. Seek to understand this person's frame of reference. Put yourself in their shoes. Perhaps especially if you disagree or have a vastly different perspective. Yes, that’s tough.

3. Become an expert at paraphrasing and reflecting back what you've heard

As well as letting the other person know you have given them the courtesy of your attention, it’s an excellent mechanism for avoiding assumptions - and miscommunication.

4. Sift for nuggets in the conversation and probe more around these

Body language and ‘charged’ words or phrases are good clues to delve deeper. Phrases like “tell me more about that” and “what do you mean when you say...” should be part of your regular conversational repertoire.

When we listen in this way, people feel seen and heard.

When people feel seen and heard, they perform at their best.

When people perform at their best, we are doing our job as a leader.

Suzi McAlpine is a leadership development specialist and author of The Leader's Digest blog