If you are a leader or ever hope to be considered by others as a leader, you must learn to communicate.
I have asked thousands of people over the years about what they consider to be the qualities of a leader. “Communication” skills, “great communicator” or something similar is nearly always listed. Most often, this means excellent speaking or possibly writing skills – what I call advocacy skills. An even more critical quality of communication and great leadership, one that potentially crosses all behavioral styles, personality types and crises and non-crises situations, is effective listening skills.
While Dale Carnegie professes to help people become better talkers and local schools and colleges teach public speaking, few courses are ever offered in “effective listening”. So here is a primer of seven essential practices to make you a better listener and a more effective leader.
- Listen carefully – listen to what others say, how they say it, and see their body gestures. Focus on what they are they saying, not on what you are going to say. Attend to their agenda and allow them to remain in control. Your role is listener. If culturally appropriate, look at their eyes and hands. Are they keeping their arms and legs crossed or held closely to the body. At what point does the person literally loosen up while you’re listening to them speak? You will see what they are communicating as much as you will hear it, when you listen carefully.
- Clarifying statement or question – even if you misunderstand what someone is saying, they will know you are trying to get on track with them when you make statements or ask questions that seek further clarification. “You seem passionate about this, but I am a bit confused. What is it you really want?” or “I can tell that your are really upset. Let me see if I can get this right: You are most concerned about…”
- Reflective statement – repeat back what they said; your intent is to mirror their words and meanings. A reflective statement is more than just repeating back their words; it shows you have thought about what they said, too. You are attempting to “get it”, which means you are accepting the person first by understanding their meaning, whether you agree or not.
- Silence – an incredible gift and sometimes all that is needed to allow someone to further their thoughts, and for you to form yours in the most helpful form possible. Silence truly is golden. Too often we feel we must say something to be helpful, when saying nothing, but listening intently is exactly all the other person needs. Silence allows the other person to complete their thoughts, further their thinking and continue to speak at some point, when they are ready. Become a master of silence and you will soon develop the reputation of a great helping listener.
- Paraphrase – A thoughtful paraphrase speaks clearly that “I heard what you’ve said and processed it into my own understanding.” Using your own words to repeat back what someone said or asked verifies what the person meant; it also allows them to further clarify what they meant.
- Open-ended response – Keep them talking so you can listen and understand more, and they can feel heard, which is sometimes all they want. “Could you say more about that?” “Tell me more about that…” “There must be a reason you said that (feel that way)…” Open the door to relationship.
- Validating feelings – let people know that it is OK to feel the way they do; it’s normal and they are not weird. This helps them move on from this thought or feeling to other thoughts and feelings, once that may take them closer to their goals. Help them know they are not in this world alone.
There are also a few critical things for a listening leader to watch out for or avoid:
- Don’t make assumptions – ask questions; check it out. Your assumptions about the other person, what he is feeling or thinking or meaning, or what she ultimately wants or needs are your biggest danger. Assume wrongly, or state your assumptions too soon or with the wrong words, and you can ruin your chance for relationship. Assumptions destroy leaders. As one of my first editors taught me, “If your grandma says she loves you, check it out.”
- Don’t be weird – if something you are inclined to say or do would be weird to you, then it is weird. Don’t overstep your boundaries; don’t try to sell them your perceptions or beliefs; don’t try to convince them of something or turn the focus to your story. Respect boundaries.
- Ask for permission – Don’t assume it’s OK to ask a probing or clarifying question. Don’t assume it is always appropriate to pray with someone, regardless of shared faith or religion. Ask first, “Is it OK if…?”
- Don’t try to fix people – It’s not your job. You may quickly find that, in your attempt to fix someone else or their problems, all you have accomplished is to bring attention to your own shortcomings.
- Do not be the problem-solver – Never try to fix the person and resist trying to fix the person’s problem. You don’t have the right answer until it becomes his right answer anyway. Instead, use your active listening skills to help this person develop her own right answers, so she can take right action to get the results that are right for her, at the right time.
- Who else is this person? When your internal assumptions and questions about the other person’s attitudes, values, intellect, abilities, authenticity, etc. get the best of you, silently ask yourself, “Who else is this person?” as a reminder they have an authentic “back story” that has made them who they are. You don’t have to know a person to listen well. You do have to respect them as someone whose life has brought them to this moment.
Take the time to be the tangible touch of a listening leader in someone’s life this week.
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