Leader as Listener

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Boilerplate copy on resumes typically include the phrase “excellent communication skills.” But how many people really have them?

Communication is so often thought of as speaking and writing well. While these are certainly important, it is not only the clear dissemination of thoughts and ideas, but also the receptivity and complete understanding of other people’s thoughts and ideas.

Excellent communication skills include the ability to listen really well, and leaders need to do this is order to be successful.

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of connective listening. In their book Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In, authors Mark Goulston and John Ullmen describe this as listening with the intention to fully understand the speaker and strengthen the connection. Connective listening is about listening from their there instead of your here.

Listening is a lot more than hearing the words that are spoken. Body language, tone of voice, inflection and other factors can either amplify, distract or totally contradict the words that are spoken and this needs to be incorporated into effective listening. To become an excellent listener means being able to go to different levels in order to fully understand.

In their book Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence, authors Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins write that in order to improve the ability to listen and engage, a leader needs to master three levels of listening: surface, issues-based and emotions-based.

Level One: Surface Listening – This is listening to hear what is actually being said and taking the words at face value. You do this by making eye contact, nodding your head, and repeating back what you hear. The speaker is then confident that you are following along and engaged in a way that enables the effective transfer of thoughts and ideas.

Level Two: Issues-based Listening – This is the ability to focus intentionally on what really matters. Rather than listening only to the basic facts, you are looking for the underlying message. Reading between the lines, so to speak. This may require asking clarifying questions to get the speaker to expand his or her thinking and say more. The underlying issues are what you are seeking to fully understand.

Level Three: Emotions-based Listening
– This is the deepest level of listening that enables you to uncover the real agenda at play. Leaders who listen at this level are able to sense the underlying emotions and motivation behind the issues. They listen to the nonverbal cues, such as the speaker’s body language, tone of voice, and overall mood. You discover the assumptions the speaker is making. Once you understand what’s going on under the surface, you are then able to name and acknowledge it. You can paraphrase what you hear and perhaps add what you sense the speaker is feeling as well. This type of listening requires you to be objective, open and curious. It takes a great deal of effort to be this present. And it takes the courage to name and say aloud the emotions being felt.

Each of these levels is essential for leaders to be effective listeners. The important thing is to practice each so that you can deploy the appropriate level when the situation requires it.

With social media’s focus on “selfies,” “likes” and “followers,” your leadership will stand out if you are able to make the most of interpersonal one-on-one, real-time communications. This means truly engaging by listening more effectively using these three levels.

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