How can I be a better listener in leadership?

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how to listen to employees

Effective listening for leaders – and why it’s so important

Listening is a topic that comes up a lot in internal communications and employee engagement.

Where once we would have expected communications within organisations to come from the top-down, that’s not so true of the world we work in today. Employees, rightly, expect correspondence to be much more circular, for them to be given a voice and asked their opinions on important topics.

While listening might seem like a simple act, it can be easy to get it wrong.

To really listen, we have to slow down – something that can be difficult for busy leaders.

Take a few seconds right now to focus in on what you can hear. Perhaps it’s birds tweeting? Air-conditioning humming in the background? Music from a distant radio? The point is that while we’re busy doing other things, it’s easy for your brain to drown out those background noises.

It’s the same when it comes to listening to employees. We have to focus, we have to pay attention and we have to be intentional.  

In this blog I want to talk about the chaos that comes from not listening – and, equally, from  listening too much – and I’m going to share five things you can do differently to shift from chaos to calm.  

The chaos of listening too much

We talk a lot about what makes a good listener, but something that’s rarely mentioned is the need to be clear about why we are listening in the first place.

If I listened to every opinion, from everyone around me, I’d be paralysed into inaction. This is important to note because, whenever we talk about this topic, we don’t often talk about the risk of listening to too many people, and possibly the wrong people.  

When I’m working with business leaders we often discuss who they seek counsel from and why. We discuss how helpful and constructive that is and how it adds value.

This is not about only listening to people who agree with us, it’s about making sure that the people we are listening to are aligned to the direction we are going in and the purpose of our organisations. If they aren’t, the risks of listening to them and taking on their advice are high.  

Alongside this, we have the problem of listening too much in general. We can seek opinions and views from everyone, but it doesn’t always help us achieve a decision. If anything, it can be used as a bit of a procrastination technique.

I’ll always remember a discussion I had with a CEO about the value and impact of internal communication where he said: “This isn’t a social club, I can’t ask everyone everything all the time as we would just get nothing done”.

That conversation has stayed with me and it’s why I often coach people to make sure they are clear about the difference between when something is open for discussion and when it’s simply a decision to be shared.  

The chaos of not listening 

It’s very easy not to listen.  

When you just want to get things done, it can feel much easier to crack on with plans and plough forwards with what you want to do. Listening means you have to take action as a result, and sometimes that can be quite uncomfortable.  

But when we don’t listen, the chaos that can follow creates symptoms like: 

  • employees not engaging with the change or the organisation 
  • people not feeling valued 
  • staff actively pursuing other goals that aren’t aligned to broader organisational goals 
  • people leaving the organisation 
  • the silent veto – people not saying anything in the room but disagreeing once they get outside it

How to get better at listening as a leader – 5 key active listening skills

So how can we go from chaos to calm with better listening? Here are five things to consider in a leadership role:  

  1. Be present: In his book Deep Listening, Oscar Tromboli explains that we can speak between 125 and 175 words a minute, yet we can listen to 400 words. This means that no matter how fast we speak, your mind can process three to four times more words in that time. It’s this gap, between what your mind can actually process and how many words we can get out, which causes us to drift off and be distracted. We are also naturally curious as human beings, so it’s easy for us to have our attention pulled in another direction. Removing distractions can help with this, along with taking notes and really focusing on the person speaking. Make sure the environment is right for the conversation – this is particularly important if you’re delving into difficult topics.

  2. Listen in order to understand, not to respond: Another great read on this subject is Poles Apart by Alison Goldsworthy, Laura Osborne and Alexandra Chesterfield. The book talks about the things that divide people and how we can bring them together. I was struck by the importance of how you approach a conversation. Often, we go into them thinking we must win or prove a point, but if we approach them with the view that we’re there to understand one other, the outcome is usually far better for both sides. To listen well is to be a friend, not a judge – to understand others’ points of view, not to ‘win’ by providing advice or by getting your point across.  

  3. Listen to everything: There’s quite a famous study that talks about the percentage breakdown of communication between words, tone and body language. It found that body language is the most important aspect, with tone and words following in that order. While some have questioned the accuracy of this data, what I think we can definitely take from it is the importance of using all three to get a richer experience. We must listen to the words people use, the tone with which they say them and also their expressions and movements. It’s the whole package of communication, not the component parts, that we need to listen to.  

  4. Be clear about why you’re listening: This is relevant for every aspect of business, whether it’s a conversation or meeting. Whenever I talk about how to make meetings more productive or team days better, I’ll highlight the need to be clear about why the conversation is taking place or what the outcome is. If people are giving you their time to listen there has to be a reason for that. The listening should be followed by action and everyone should be clear what that needs to be. 

  5. Have a strategy, don’t do it solely when there is a crisis: If we only listen to colleagues when there is a crisis, then it can send out the message that we don’t want to hear from them at any other time. If emails inviting them to a company meeting or to complete an online survey only come out when something is about to change, people become very fearful of any internal communication. You can mitigate this by having a clear strategy for internal conversation that includes listening to people and two-way dialogue on a regular basis, regardless of whether your organisation is going through change or not.  

In short, what’s important for us all is that we truly listen to people and then we take action. It’s easy to tick a box and listen and not do anything with it, but that creates huge issues around trust inside organisations. So, if you’re listening, be prepared to do something as a result.  

If you’re interested in any further reading on this subject I would recommend Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks’ book Messengers – Eight Ways to Get Heard.  There’s also a section in my book, Influential Internal Communication.

You can also hear more about this subject on this episode of the Redefining Communications with Jenni Field podcast.

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Join our community

Subscribe to join our community and we’ll be in touch with helpful advice and updates about how we can take your organisation from chaos to calm. Our community gets invited to a quarterly 90-minute Ask Me Anything online session with Jenni Field, as well as early access to events, discounts and research.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.