We already know about the value and importance of communication in business and leadership. Effective leaders are skilled at the art of persuasion and can generate commitment to their organization’s vision. Great companies tell a compelling brand story.
But what about the other side of the communication coin? What about the art of listening?
As an executive coach, I practice the art of listening to best serve my clients. I help leaders cultivate deep listening skills to enable them to reach their full potential. This work draws from an understanding of the power of nonverbal communication to developing a firm foundation of mindfulness and emotional intelligence.
Start with active listening
At a minimum, we should all seek to be active listeners. Active listening is about choosing to be fully present in the conversation and fully focused on what the other person is saying. As such, it also involves a mindful choice not to give in to distraction.
It is difficult, for instance, to compete with a smartphone. You cannot make proper eye contact with someone if they are scrolling through their phone. Part of promoting the art of listening is gently demanding the undivided attention of others. When I notice someone splitting their attention between me and their phone, I pause the conversation and say we can talk when you are done checking your phone. I prefer to look at your eyes instead of your eyelids.
Another key element of active listening is avoiding the temptation to be formulating our response, even as the other person is still speaking. This is easier said than done. Research shows that people think a lot faster than people talk, so it is tempting to take mental side trips while listening. Instead, use that extra mental energy to read between the lines. Attempt to understand the meaning behind the words and in between the words.
Aspire to deep listening
One study distinguishes between “listening to respond” and “listening to understand.” With active listening, we are doing more than waiting for a chance to respond. We are present and focused on the person speaking. Deep listening takes active listening another step further.
It all comes down to intent. It is one thing to be fully present to the other person. It is another thing to go the extra mile and seek to understand them truly. Deep listening springs from a desire to better understand a person or situation and deeply connect with them. When we listen deeply, we do so without judgment or preconceived ideas. We are open to surprise and new insights. We view the conversation as a journey of discovery.
The more deeply we give of ourselves as listeners, the more deeply the other person will be willing to share and connect with us. It is in that place of greater connection and vulnerability that true collaboration takes place.
Although listening should not merely involve biding our time until we have a chance to respond, that response will reveal a great deal about the quality of our listening. Are we continuing with a monologue we have already prepared in advance? Or are we genuinely engaging with what the person has just expressed?
A mindful response often starts with a good follow-up question to acquire more information and understanding or to delve deeper. An alternative is to summarize what the person has said in order to confirm we have correctly understood them. Either way, our intent is to explore the other person’s point of view and not impose our own agenda.
As with so many leadership skills I teach, it all starts with mindful self-awareness. We are unlikely to listen deeply and openly if we are not in tune with our thoughts and feelings. As one writer on mindful communication states, “A clouded mirror cannot reflect accurately. We cannot perceive, receive, or interact authentically with others unless our self-relationship is authentic.”
Deep listening pays off in multiple ways and will produce beneficial ripple effects across your organization. A culture of listening is a culture of learning. Just as mindful meditation improves our ability to focus and pay attention for the rest of the day, deep listening is sure to translate into deep focus in other aspects of work.
Self-awareness is listening to ourselves. Situational awareness is listening to the room. Deep listeners listen with the intent to learn and connect. Their receptivity expands their access to new information and new perspectives, which invariably leads to more creative ideas. Great leaders must first and foremost be deep listeners.