Listen To Lead: Six Steps to Becoming an Active Listener

Posted: Aug. 24, 2021, noon

Listen To Lead: Six Steps to Becoming an Active Listener 

The #1 skill you can develop to be a better leader, manager, co-worker, or even friend is listening. Effective listening is the bridge to success- it improves understanding, increases engagement, turbo-charges negotiating and persuasion, and leads to stronger relationships. The best part of being a great listener is that it's a skill, and like any skill you can learn it, practice it, and improve it. These six steps will help you overcome listening barriers, put an end to poor listening habits, and understand what it takes to be an great active listener.   

  1. Be Present and Set the Stage

Whenever an important conversation is about to take place, you must set the space for listening. The first thing you should do is to make sure you're able to be present and focused on listening. This means that you should be well-rested, make sure you're not too full or hungry, and that you're able to put aside any of your own mental distractions. Maybe for you that means taking a moment to meditate, taking a moment to acknowledge and eliminate biases, putting emotions to the side, or just acknowledging that this moment is important and your team deserves all yourl attention. 

If you aren't in a position to do that, you need to try to postpone the conversation. If you don't feel like you can be mindful, it's important that you acknowledge that with the person. They're going to appreciate the fact that you are concerned about them to the point that you want to make sure you can pay attention. Just make sure that if you cancel a meeting, YOU are the one to put it back on the calendar. 

The second part of this is to make sure the space is ready for you to listen. Eliminate distractions, let people know not to interrupt, find a neutral place like a conference room, make sure that your phone is silenced. Minimize the external things that interrupt and take care of them ahead of time. Taking the time to prepare yourself and the space for listening shows your team that you care about their needs and their time. Do your best to set the stage for connective listening. 

2.Use Your Nonverbal Cues

It is important to understand the power of nonverbal communication. Research shows that upwards of 60 to 90% of the actual message of communication is interpreted through nonverbals.  

Remember one of the key goals of effective listening is showing the other person that you're listening and much of this is done through your nonverbals. How can you be more aware of your non-verbals and develop the skills for using them more effectively? 

Start with your facial expressions. As people say, the eyes are the window to the soul. This pertains to listening as well, you need to be making eye contact with the person, not like piercing laser eye contact but a natural friendly eye contact. If you are communicating via video chat, whether that’s Zoom or Skype or another platform, remember that the camera is their eyes. You should be looking at the camera, as tricky as that can be sometimes. It is tempting to look at their face on the screen, but when you do that people will feel less connected to you.

Another aspect of the facial expressions is making sure your natural emotional responses are coming through. If they say something funny, smile  - if they say something sad, acknowledge that with your face. Smiling and all those other facial gestures are important to make others feel engaged. Smiling also makes people feel more comfortable! 

Body posture and position is also important. In the United States, the comfort zone for conversation is generally between 2 and 4 feet away. For more intimate conversations a little closer can be okay, but if you're too far away they can feel disconnected. Avoid sitting across large conference tables if you can. You also want to signal that you are receptive to their thoughts and ideas, so actually position yourself openly to them- face them, arms uncrossed, with good posture, and your head at eye level. This is a nice and natural open body position. 

The key takeaway here is for you to physically show that you're listening. So remember to make eye contact,  keep body posture open and respond appropriately with your face and your body. When you do this you’ll come across as an engaged listener -- which, hopefully, you are! 

3. Excel by Asking Questions

People often think that listening is a passive activity and that good listening requires being quiet to really grasp the message. In reality, listening is an active sport you should be engaging and actively participating in. One of the key skills here is to be able to ask good questions. Asking questions shows the other person that you're interested and that you're part of the conversation. It helps you dig deeper and get at underlying issues. 

First I want you to consider the types of questions you ask. 

Sometimes when people come to you they may have a hard time articulating what the issue is or what's going on. At these times,  asking open ended questions can be a really powerful tool to help them explore their thoughts. For example “can you talk a little bit about your thoughts on X” or “what would this look like for you?” These types of open-ended questions allow the person to explore their thoughts and you to get more detail by allowing them to talk through the process. It also shows them you are interested and engaged in their thoughts.

This gets us to the second type of questions, follow up questions and probing questions. These are ways that we can dig deeper.  Oftentimes the stated issue is not really the singular issue -- there may be something else going on, an underlying interest or concern that isn't articulated. 

You can get at these underlying topics by asking probing questions. For example, you can ask things like “so why is that important to you”, “how would that affect you”, or “what would this do”. You can also use these to explore your ideas with others as well saying things like “so if we did this how would that affect your decision, your process, etc?” The probing questions are ways that we can further explore those open-ended questions.

Finally you can use questions to demonstrate areas of agreement. In sales, one of the things that leads to success is being able to identify when they're ready to close and not let the moment pass. Use questions to build their thoughts. “So it sounds like you can see yourself using this in the future so what can we do to get you to commit today?”

Questions are one of the most vital tools of effective listening. Practice developing this skill in every conversation you have -- with friends, family, and colleagues. It’s going to make you more adept at getting detailed information and getting people to open up more effectively. Asking good questions is a great way to get commitment and closure of your conversations.  

4. Summarize and Paraphrase 

Listening and summarizing is one of the key skills to help teams excel. Paraphrasing is when we rephrase what another person has said in our own words.This is particularly useful in checking understanding and reflecting back emotions. Paraphrasing understanding allows you to not just make sure that you're getting the content correct but also shows the other person you're paying attention and listening and gives them the option to correct and realign. But, you want to keep your judgment out of it and just check whether you're getting the information correct. The same goes for paraphrasing emotions. 

Summarizing is similar in nature in that we are putting what's going on in our own words,  but summarizing is broader in nature. It's summarizing larger parts of the conversation.  This can be useful especially for long conversations or complex ones. Summarizing can be saying things like  “it sounds like the three main points are this, this and this, and under this point we need to focus on...”  This benefits you in a couple ways. Once again, it's a way to check your perception and understanding and shows that you are listening. It also is useful as a help to your memory and theirs. Finally and often more importantly, summarizing is a way to highlight agreement and look for ways to move forward. 

5. Pay Attention to Time and Place

Here are a few things to be aware of when it comes to setting the scene for successful listening. First, consider how space fits into listening. Recognizing that aspects of space communicate things like power. If you are sitting behind a large desk and you make them sit in a smaller chair on the other side, you're communicating that you are more powerful than them. 

If you want to and need to communicate that aspect of power, then do that but more often you're going to want to find something that puts you on the same level playing field. This can be a conference room, a small couch or table in your or their office, or another neutral space. Try to find a place that you sit beside or near each other without large barriers between you.

Time also can affect listening in some key ways. The first is to be aware of the internal distractions that you or others might be impacted by. Any time our minds are focused on other things we cannot be focused on listening. Other times this might impact listing include:  if you just got to work and haven't had a chance to get settled, if you've got a big meeting coming up, or any number of inopportune times. 

Another aspect of time is to make sure you give yourself a buffer on the other end - don't set a meeting directly after the one that you're having -- especially if it is an important conversation. You don’t want to have to stress if the conversation goes long and you want to give yourself time to reflect after they have left. 

So be aware of what else is going on around you and other people’s schedules. Look at your calendar for the next few weeks -- do you need to adjust any of your meeting times? Do you have a neutral space to meet in? Make the ajustements you need in order to ensure that all parties are able to be present, focused, and listen with 100% attention. 

6. Closing the Conversation 

Just participating actively in a conversation isn't enough to truly BE a great listener. There's a few other things you must do to make sure your team feels that you're listening to them,  and ensure that you are. 

When you reach the end of the conversation, make sure both you and the other person remember what you agreed on or where you left off. If you’re conversing with a group of people, make sure everyone is on the same page. Then, doing a quick summary that sets tasks and responsibilities. This is vital to successful follow up! These things make sure that you're both on the same page and aligned to the next steps, and who is doing what when. This closes out the conversation and adds accountability so that you and the other person or people follow through on the plan. 

This takes you to the most vital part of any conversation, you have to be trustworthy and do what you say you agreed to. Meet deadlines and expectations and  make sure that what you say in the conversation is what you actually do. If you change your mind or take a different path, you better make sure you are communicating with them about why. Have another conversation and start the process again. The last piece of this puzzle is to be sure to set up follow-up check-ins. It’s another layer of accountability and this is particularly important when you are not able to find closure in the current conversation.

So, put these steps in place to make sure that even after the conversation, people feel listened to. I encourage you to check out my synchronous workshop “Great Leaders Listen: Developing your listening skills”. This course will discuss challenges to effective listening and practice some actionable skills you can take back to your organizations right away. If you are an active listener, let people know by following through with your agreements and commitments. That is the sign of a good listener and a great leader.