When you think of a great leader, what comes to mind?
Though you might conjure up images of someone persuasive, charismatic, and with excellent speaking skills, there’s one highly underrated soft skill that leaders from Lee Iacocca to Gary Vaynerchuk cite as the secret to their success: listening.
The benefits of listening are numerous. Active listening demonstrates respect, builds trust, and makes people feel valued. In addition, it creates a virtuous cycle: we naturally gravitate toward those who listen to us, and when we feel heard, we open up and share.
Active listening also allows leaders to learn about things, both good and bad, so they can discover new ideas and opportunities as well as to detect — and get creative about solving — potential problems when they’re still in their infancy. Sir Richard Branson, a proponent of leaders who listen, summed it up best when he said: “Nobody learned anything by hearing themselves speak.”
Here are three ways to master the fine art of listening:
1. Stop multitasking
Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who claimed they were listening even though you knew they were checking their messages? It’s impossible to truly listen when you’re multitasking. So instead, the next time you’re with a colleague, put away your phone or laptop and give them your undivided attention. Focusing on others lets them know that what they say is significant enough to warrant your full attention and that they matter. And when you make someone feel heard, they’ll be more inclined to go further for you.
2. Listen to understand, not respond
If you’re a solutions-oriented leader, training yourself to listen to understand versus respond can often be the toughest thing to do. But sometimes, listening means biting your tongue and flexing your empathy muscle to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Allow others the opportunity to be heard completely without interrupting and before saying anything. Then, when they’ve finished speaking, be genuinely curious, asking clarifying questions and repeating back what you heard. Getting into this habit means you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the matter at hand, plus you’ll tend to remember what’s important to others.
3. Learn to listen to what’s not being said
It’s not enough simply to be conscious of the words of others; a skilled listener can also “hear” what is not being said by observing word choice, tone, and body language inconsistencies. For instance, if a colleague tells you “everything’s fine,” yet his feigned smile and tightly crossed arms suggest otherwise, he’s probably dealing with something unspoken. When you learn to listen to what’s not being said, you’ll notice things other less-skilled listeners will miss, allowing you to follow up and showcase your heightened awareness.
Leaders who cultivate their listening skills put the focus on others and demonstrate that they matter. And those excellent listening skills improve relationships and communication, foster collaboration, and can help give them a competitive advantage over those leaders who speak more than they listen.
This article is part of a multi-week series covering the range of soft skills and how to cultivate and apply them to your career. Be sure to check out my earlier articles on empathy, persuasion, and connecting with others.