Day 5: Practice active listening. This post is part of Forbes’ Career Challenge: Build Stronger Relationships In 15 Days.
Miguel, a senior vice president at a healthcare company, consistently received negative feedback in one area of leadership: his listening skills. While he was successful in generating business results, his team reported that they would be more motivated if they felt a deeper connection to Miguel. They left meetings with him uncertain if he had heard them, not knowing if he would consider their ideas. In follow-up meetings, it was often clear that Miguel hadn’t really been paying attention, because he would propose some of the ideas his team had shared as new thoughts of his own.
Working as his coach, I observed Miguel in meetings and discovered something surprising. On the surface, it appeared that Miguel was a good listener. He would nod, smile, make eye contact and say “uh-huh” at the right times. He could even recite back what someone had just said.
When I asked Miguel what was going on, he said, “I’m quick to grasp what someone is saying, but I lose attention after the first few sentences. My mind starts to wander, and before I know it, I’m mentally working on something else.”
Miguel was going through the motions of active listening, but his team was right. He didn’t hear them. While Miguel thought improving his listening skills would be nice, he didn’t view it as an imperative. Then I interviewed his team members and shared their honest comments about the impact his lack of listening was having on their productivity. Some said they had lost their motivation to come up with innovative ideas because Miguel already had his mind made up and seemed uninterested in hearing from them. Others felt frustrated at the time wasted going over the same ground in successive meetings. Many reported they didn’t feel valued, and a couple of star performers revealed they were looking for jobs outside of his team.
Miguel had forgotten the most important thing he needed to deliver results successfully over the long-term: good relationships. And, as Miguel discovered, they can’t be faked. Once he understood how the power of connection can impact business results, he was motivated to change.
I reminded Miguel that genuine active listening would not only be good for his relationships, but also his brain . In fact, active listening boosts oxytocin levels in the brains of both the speaker and the listener. Oxytocin, often referred to as the love hormone, can help build connection and trust in any relationship. When you’re engaged in a conversation in which you feel fully heard, the neurochemical is released in your body and will lead you to continuously seek out those you’ve connected with and invest in those relationships.
Miguel and I went to work improving his active listening skills by following these five steps:
Be present. The next time you’re in a meeting with someone you consider charismatic, pay attention to how present she is to others. We attribute charisma to someone when she treats us as though we’re the only person in the room, not when she’s all about herself.
In a meeting, you might be sitting across the table from your direct report, but are you creating your to-do list for the week in your head? As Miguel discovered the hard way, people know when your mind is elsewhere, and it makes them feel ignored and less of a priority.
What’s more, you’ll cut down time spent in meetings by being fully present. You’ll avoid repetition and miscommunication, and you’ll pick up on unspoken cues before they become bigger issues. If you’re talking virtually, use video whenever possible and position the camera so that your hands are visible during the call—helping you avoid the temptation of typing at your computer, and demonstrating to others on the call that you’re not multitasking. If you like to take notes, state what you’re doing upfront and keep yourself honest by shutting down your email, or better yet, handwrite your notes.
I ran a series of group coaching sessions with six participants. When one participant decided to keep his hands visible during all video calls, the others followed suit. By the end of the program, people reported feeling deeply connected and trusting toward each other, and they decided to keep doing the calls, even after my time with them ended. Try this trick out on your next video call and notice the difference for yourself.
Don’t hijack the other person’s story. Imagine you’ve just hit a milestone at work and you’re so excited that you tell your manager about it, but instead of engaging in the details of your project he says, “That’s nice,” then launches into a story of his work accomplishment. You leave the conversation feeling deflated and less connected to him.
Remember that feeling when someone else is sharing with you. Just listen and acknowledge his story. You might briefly say, “This reminds me of a similar experience” to show you empathize, but then go back to fully listening. Giving someone a safe space to share their whole story leaves your relationship intact and even strengthens it.
Make it about them. At the outset, ask your colleague what she wants out of the conversation so that you can listen with her agenda in mind. You could even write it down to remind yourself of the purpose of the conversation. This will help you actively listen instead of offering solutions. Or, if she’s asked for feedback, think about what she may have missed instead of giving advice. For example, during a meeting to discuss a plan that was difficult to implement someone asked, “What would be the downside to maintaining the status quo?” The question sparked an important debate that convinced people they had to change.
Ask the right kinds of questions. At some point in the conversation, you might be tempted to get your point of view across by asking a cleverly disguised question. After all, questions indicate that you’re listening, right? That depends on the types of questions you ask.
Questions that start with, “Have you thought about…” tend to be about inserting your idea and potentially making the other person feel inadequate. In general, the longer your question, the more likely it is that you’ve deviated from genuinely being curious or trying to understand your colleague’s point of view. You’re focusing on what’s going on inside your head—and potentially weakening the relationship.
Instead, try open-ended questions or statements, such as “Can you tell me more about…”, “Would you elaborate on…” and “I’m curious about….” These will deepen your colleague’s and your understanding of the situation and produce better solutions when the time is right.
Demonstrate that you’ve heard him. A general manager I coach was puzzled when he received feedback about being a poor listener. He told me that he genuinely heard what people said and had a great memory. When I probed further, we discovered that while he did listen well, the other person didn’t recognize it because my client didn’t acknowledge what was said before moving on to the next topic.
A great way to show you’re listening is taking notes. Be sure to separate out notes of what the other person is saying from any ideas you have while you’re listening to him by using margin notes. After your colleague has finished speaking, use your notes to play back the main points you heard. Confirm with your colleague that you heard everything correctly. Reviewing your notes at the end of the conversation can remind the speaker of something more he wants to add.
As Miguel mastered active listening, his colleagues felt heard and began to see him as someone who cared about their ideas and them. Feeling heard gave his team more confidence in what they were saying. And, surprisingly, some of his colleagues appreciated Miguel’s intelligence more once he started listening better.
Most of us want to be helpful and add value to the people we work with. A trap we fall into is speaking too soon and too much. We jump in with our ideas, advice and examples in hopes that others will benefit from our thoughts and appreciate us. Instead, you’ll create value by listening first and listening more often than you speak. When your colleagues feel heard, they’ll appreciate you and you’ll both feel more connected to each other.
Ready for the next challenge? Tune in on November 5 for Day 6.
Miss a challenge? Click here for Day 4: Refine your communication skills.