How to Become a Better Listener

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 Published 4/18/2015

One of the most important skills for any manager is listening. Listening demonstrates respect, concern, openness to new ideas, empathy, compassion, curiosity, trust, loyalty, and receptivity to feedback – all considered being qualities of an effective leader.

Listening isn’t rocket science. We are born with the ability to listen, yet somehow managers, at some point in their careers, seem to forget how to use this natural born gift.

Listening is one of the most consistently lowest rated behaviors in 360 degree feedback assessments for managers. It’s a management disease – Poor Listener Syndrome (PLS).

Actually, it’s not just managers that don’t listen – it’s also employees, husbands, wives, kids, students, teachers, and just about human being with two ears. This is a management and leadership resource, so we’ll stick with listening in the context of a management skill.

If listening is such an important management skill and it’s an ability we were born with, why do so many managers get feedback that say they are poor listeners?

That’s an issue I’ve explored with several managers when I review their 360 assessment results. Here are the seven most frequent reasons, and a prescription for each cause:

1. They don’t know they are poor listeners – it’s a blind spot. A behavioral blind spot is the gap between our intentions and our behaviors.

We see ourselves as a good listener, but others don’t. Given that candid feedback is such a rare commodity, we are clueless about our flaws until they are pointed out by others. And even when they are, we sometimes still deny they exist (fight or flight).

The cure: Get some feedback. See “How to get feedback.” Feedback is a gift, and awareness is the key to self-development.

2. They don’t understand the value of listening. I’ll often have to spend time explaining the impact of poor listening to managers, either in a coaching session or in a training class. Sometimes I’ll demonstrate it. At some point, the light goes on, and for the first time in their lives they get it. These are the same managers who are often having issues in their personal lives, with their friends and family, and poor listening is often the culprit.

The cure: read the research, discuss the importance of listening with others, and experience the positive effects when you focus on improving your listening skills.

3. They don’t know how to listen. Managers often get low scores in listening but insist they understand the importance of listening and that they DO listen. While this may be true (good intentions), others see behaviors that convey a lack of listening.

The cure: listening skills are relatively easy behaviors to learn, with a little awareness and practice. They include:

  • Making eye contact
  • Head nodding
  • An open posture
  • Leaning forward
  • Arms uncrossed
  • Using encouraging phrases such as, “Go on”, “Tell me more”, “Uh huh,” or anything to show that you are paying attention
  • Paraphrasing (repeating back in your own words to check for understanding

Take a short course, read a book, observe others, practice, and get feedback. Like any new skill, it will feel unnatural at first, but with deliberate practice, the skill soon becomes a habit.

4. They are impatient, smart, or easily distracted. Okay, these are actually three separate, but sometimes related causes. Highly successful, intelligent, type A managers often find it difficult to slow down and take the extra time to listen. They jump ahead and want to finish someone’s sentence, use hand gestures to speed someone along, or their minds start racing on to other issues and thoughts. Smartphone checking is a symptom of this impatience and habitual multi-tasking.

The cures: shut the door, turn off the smartphone, focus, and give the person in front of you 100 percent of your attention. Think of it as a gift, and observe the difference in how others respond.

5. They listen selectively. This reason is one of the most common, and becomes apparent with 360 degree assessment results. The manager shows high in listening for the boss and superiors, but low with peers or direct reports.

The cure: the skills are there – you just have to apply them consistently.

6. They don’t value people at all. Managers won’t admit this, but when they try to justify their low listening scores, it becomes apparent that they just don’t see value in paying attention to what others have to say. They just may not be interested in people. In the worst cases, it’s extreme arrogance.

The cure: fake it until you make it. If you can convince a manager that it is in their own selfish self-interest to at least pretend that they are listening, they might be willing to mimic listening behaviors. Yes, it’s not authentic, and some people will see through it, but sometimes if you practice a behavior long enough, you get good at it, and you start to become the behavior.

7. They have poor hearing. I know this from personal experience, when a caring manager told me that others were complaining that I didn’t listen to them. That, and my wife complaining that the TV was too loud.

The cause: get your hearing checked, and if you are told you need hearing aids (and can afford them), get it done. Your family and employees will appreciate it, and you’ll find out what you’ve been missing.

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