Jim is six months into his job in a new division. To his surprise, he’s having difficulty leading his new group. He can’t pinpoint the reason for the friction between himself and several of his direct reports, and he’s frustrated that his group hasn’t jelled. Working with a coach, Jim learns that much of his trouble is tied to poor listening skills.
Many managers, like Jim, take for granted their ability to listen to others. Leaders are often surprised to find out that their peers, direct reports or bosses think they don’t listen. They are shocked when they learn that others see them as impatient, judgmental, arrogant or unaware. If not corrected, poor listening skills will translate into poor relationships and poor performance.
The impact of not listening well is far-reaching, according to Michael Hoppe, author of the recently-released guidebook Active Listening, from the Center for Creative Leadership. Assessments of thousands of leaders in CCL’s database indicate that many leaders fall short on abilities that directly relate to their listening skills, including:
- Dealing with people’s feelings.
- Accepting criticism well.
- Trying to understand what other people think before making judgments about them.
- Encouraging direct reports to share.
- Using feedback to make necessary changes in their behavior.
- Being open to the input of others.
- Taking another’s perspective; imagining someone else’s point of view.
Colleagues, direct reports and others often describe poor listeners in unflattering ways: “He’s not really interested in what I have to say.” “She’s already made up her mind; why does she bother to ask our opinion?” “She doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on beneath the surface.” “He’s just really hard to talk to.”
Signs that a leader’s listening skills aren’t up to par include:
Driven to distraction. Multi-tasking is a liability when you need to listen and concentrate on what another person is trying to say. Do you sit behind your desk, accept phone calls, shuffle papers or otherwise communicate by your activities or gestures that you are not fully attentive?
Moving on. Whether pressed for time or just accustomed to moving through issues quickly, many leaders have a hard time concentrating on what is being said. Often they mentally shift to what comes next. How often do you think about your response rather than focusing on what the other person is saying?
Problem solving. Many leaders feel compelled to be the expert and offer a solution to a problem right away. Poor listeners give advice too soon. Do you suggest what should be done before the other person has fully explained his or her perspective?
Downplays feelings. Emotions are part of people’s work experience. Poor listeners dismiss other people’s feelings. They also miss out on important insights into what is going on among their employees. Do you tell people not to feel the way they do? Are you at a loss when another person expresses emotions?
Shuns silence. Many leaders make it a point to fill any silences, or they feel obligated to respond to every comment. These reactions cut short the other person’s time to think and react. Do you talk significantly more than the other person talks?
The Impact of Active Listening
Active listening is a set of techniques that help leaders to become more effective in working with direct reports, peers, customers, bosses, stakeholders and others. Leaders can use active listening techniques to:
• Hear accurately
• Gather information
• Show respect
• Connect to others
• Question assumptions
• Find answers
• Weigh options
• Change perspectives
• Show appreciation
• Soothe or heal
• Set the stage for something else
• Build relationships
This article is adapted from Active Listening by Michael Hoppe (Center for Creative Leadership, 2006).