3 Listening Styles That Are Cornerstones of Modern Leadership
The ability to listen impacts nearly every responsibility of an executive role. It provides deep insights which enable a manager to set a clear vision and direction, manage projects, build and align a team, resolve conflicts and gain broader support. Taking the time to understand another person’s viewpoint is the first step in building an effective two-way dialogue. Then follows setting the stage for mutual understanding and ensuring clear exchange of information without any distortion.
Traditionally, workplace communication flow has been from the top to the bottom. Instructions are given by the management which is to be followed by employees. This often leads to an us-vs-them or even an anti-establishment attitude among employees. However, things are changing now. Successful organisations understand that communication flows not just from top to bottom but also sideways and even from the bottom to the top. Most organisations want a flatter company and an all-around communication channel. Think about this from an employee perspective; when an employee is striving to be heard and understood first, it’s pretty hard for listening to occur, the virtual nature of work has complicated this even more with communication coming in digital forms.
Lack of face to face interactions has created barriers to communication as access to non-verbal clues has become rare. Poor listening creates barriers to communication in form of assumptions, selective filtering, comparisons, gossips and misunderstandings. In the digital workplace, information overload is another barrier to effective communication. From a management perspective, the lack of understanding caused by poor communication is the main cause of errors, ineffective decisions, and costly mistakes. At an individual level, poor listening leads to feelings getting hurt and a loss of team cohesion. This deteriorates trust and weakens communication even further. By connecting the dots, you can see that poor listening eventually leads to higher costs and eventually lower profits.
Let’s explore 3 types of listening skills that are essential for successful leaders, managers and the organisation at large.
1. Active listening:
In the age of smartphones and social media, it feels like people are talking a lot, more than trying to listen. If we think about all the one-way communications we receive, be it email or text messages, it becomes very clear. And yet, few skills are more critical for effective communication and strong leadership than the ability to listen.
In a nutshell, it is about giving uninterrupted attention, understanding the other person’s point of view without any bias or judgment. The difficult but important part is to control the urge to frame a response while the other person is still communicating. Active listening enables employees, customers and other stakeholders to feel that their perspectives are being heard, accepted and understood. It doesn’t end with just listening. If a problem has been presented, it then becomes the duty of the manager to also find an effective solution. It is best to use only your ears while engaging during an active listening exercise and then match it to nonverbal clues.
When can you use active listening? Active listening can be used to understand and to address complaints and grievances, or to understand the experience of an employee either regularly or after a special project, to understand perspectives of employees who are in a conflict, obtain honest and open feedback and so on.
Signs to display active listening:
• Make eye contact to show you’re engaged and avoid any interruptions such as talking in between or using your smartphone.
• Notice people speaking, and encourage everybody to engage.
• Paraphrase – “So, you want us to consider a flexible work schedule instead of clocking specific hours at work?”
• Use verbal affirmation – “I appreciate the time you’ve taken to engage with me.”
• Ask open-ended questions – “I understand you aren’t happy with your new assignment. What changes can we make to it?”
• Asking specific questions – “How many employees did you put on this project last year?”
• Mentioning similar situations to show empathy – “I was in a similar situation after my previous company made me redundant.”
2. Emotional listening:
This involves connecting with the feelings of others, and not letting your own emotions get in the way. It is about listening to the said and unsaid and then matching the two.
Here the focus is more on the feeling behind the words rather than the literal words that are being spoken. The employee may not necessarily be looking for a solution. But they want to be heard and express themselves. Emotional listening requires interpretation beyond words and non-verbal clues. Emotional listening involves connecting the dots between what is being said and unsaid and connects with others from an authentic place, and trusts their thinking, knowing they have the answer within them. And it is also about asking to know more. It requires mindfulness about what to say or what not to say, so you can create a safe space to express new ideas, thoughts, and emotions.
When can you use emotional listening? It is especially useful in situations when a person is being coached, counselled or while helping a person cope during a crisis, a conflict, deal with personal challenges To effectively engage in emotional listening, listen with ears, eyes and gut.
Some examples of emotional listening:
• Emotional listening requires studying someone’s expressions, tone of voice, and body language to draw conclusions about how they’re feeling.
• Verbal cues matter, too, and if you listen emotionally, you’ll be able to interpret them quite easily. If someone says, “I’m happy with that pay hike. I have got what I expected to receive.” you can assume she is.
• Create room for an employee to elaborate on a situation. Some examples of this are: “How are you feeling about this situation?”, or “Would you have preferred a different outcome?”, or “Can you tell me more?”, or something more direct like “Are you happy?”.
• Respond to the employee’s feelings rather than reacting. This shows you are considering their viewpoint and not being influenced by your own.
3. Intellectual listening:
Many day-to-day decisions that we make are based on some form of analysis, whether it be listening, reading or thought. Our opinions, values and beliefs are based on our ability to process information and formulate our feelings about the world around us as well as weigh the pros and cons to make an informed decision.
Intellectual listening builds upon basic comprehensive listening and requires a high level of concentration and engagement to understand. It has less to do with the emotional content of what is being communicated and more to do with critical thinking and following a logical sequence as it is communicated. Accuracy of information or data is an important part of intellectual listening. It involves listening to what is being said and digging into your memory to validate that piece of information. Intellectual listening involves using ears, eyes and mind in close coordination.
When can you use intellectual listening? This kind of listening is best suited in situations such as conducting review meetings, recruitment, discussing new ideas or project plans or even when reprimanding an employee.
Some examples of intellectual listening:
• A job applicant shares his or her understanding of an unclear question during an interview and asks if he/she has it right.
• An interviewer asks a follow-up question to gain further clarification on how a candidate has applied a critical skill in a past job.
• At the end of a performance review, an employee recounts the specific areas in which his manager asks him to improve.
Just like communication styles can be different so can be listening styles. Successful management depends on clear, open communication, and good communication can only be established through good listening. Healthy communication between leaders and team members establishes a foundation for trust. As a manager, you are pulled in many directions throughout the day. While it may seem like you don’t have time, making the time to listen to your team members has the potential to increase your leadership capacity greatly as you gain insights, consider new ideas and receive valuable feedback.
Those in leadership roles must decide when they should leverage speaking — giving directions, orders, decisions and when to leverage listening —gathering ideas, opinions, getting concurrence. When your team members know that they will be heard, they are more likely to openly share their ideas and provide honest feedback. This, in turn, drives employee engagement and positive business outcomes including innovation, productivity and profitability.
Effective listening is an important module of Yellow Spark’s First Time Manager programme. To know more, write to – firstname.lastname@example.org
Author Profile: Deepam Yogi is an adventurer at heart, socially conscious in her gut and professionally a strategic consultant. She co-founded Yellow Spark to support organisations to build workplaces that people love being a part of. Deepam describes herself as a shy yet opinionated writer and firmly believes that most answers to complex issues lie in simple communication.