How to Listen Like a Leader

Being able to communicate and motivate is critical to being a strong leader - but so is listening. Here are three ways to strengthen this key executive skill.

We think of leaders as people who speak up, stand out, and take action. Leaders must motivate, unite, and communicate a vision for success, as well as the demands and expectations of the organization. In short, get people to listen.

And yet. The strength of your leadership doesn’t lie solely in how much information you put out. Your broadcasting of mission and expectation must be balanced by your ability to receive information, too. In other words, you need to know how to glean information and insight through exceptional listening.

Joseph Folkman, a statistician who has conducted research on what makes a great leader, writes in that we have a one-sided view of what “better communication” is. And it does not equate to speaking more. In fact, he says, the most effective communicators, and best leaders, are those who are just as good at asking the right questions and listening to the answers.

What the study showed

Folkman looked data from 2,867 leaders who were assessed by their managers, peers, direct reports and others on their effectiveness at communicating powerfully, asking effective questions, and listening well, to find out which skill by itself, would have the greatest impact on making someone appear to be an extraordinary leader.

And guess what he found? Not any single one of the three things (telling, asking, listening) made that big of a difference - but what did was a combination of all three. Those leaders were deemed exceptional.

Listening as an act of power may seem counterintuitive, especially if you are a bit green in your leadership role. Think of telling and listening as two points on an electrical circuit. Information goes out from you like a current. In order for the energy to flow, the light bulb to light, the team to function optimally, information must loop back to the source. Your skillful questions and careful listening complete that loop.

Here are three ways to fold exceptional listening into a strong leadership style:

  • Don’t make up your mind before the conversation. Powerful listening can only happen when you are open to receiving what the other person has to say. You don’t ultimately have to agree with it or take action on it, but you need to withhold your judgment until you truly understand what’s being said. In addition, express that understanding. Use your own words to paraphrase what you heard, showing he or show that you do indeed get what they’re saying.

  • Talk less and get comfortable with pauses. Seriously. Unless you are asking a probing question or clarifying something you don’t understand, keep your words to a minimum. This will free up your attention from what you’re planning on saying next, and it will also give the other person time to settle into the experience of being listened to. Let the other person speak; you’ll mine more information from the conversation in what she or he says and doesn’t say. It can take an employee or team member time to settle into being heard, as most of us are used to receiving information.

  • Practice staying cool. You are probably going to hear things that drive you crazy or trigger you emotionally. You’re human; it’s bound to happen. The key in good listening is to maintain your equilibrium, as this recent Forbes article noted. For starters, lose the emotional reasoning (they’re trying to take advantage of me!) and stay focused on questions that open the other person up  and on reflecting back what you’ve heard.

Exceptional listening give you deep knowledge of your team, your process, and your strengths and weaknesses. And that intel gives you the edge in making the leadership decisions that drive success.

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