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Do you want to be a better listener? Did you know that 75% of the time we are “listening” we are actually distracted, preoccupied or forgetful? Did you know that 85% of what we know that we have learned by listening?

These statistics are staggering. But we must listen to learn, and we are terrible at listening. So, if you want to be a better leader, you’ve got to improve your listening skills.

Why listening matters

Besides increasing cognitive capabilities by listening, it’s also a hugely important leadership attribute. With people leaving their jobs in droves because they don’t feel valued or appreciated at work, the best thing leaders can do is improve their listening skills. Being a good listener shows you care and are interested in what’s being said, and it makes you a better problem solver because you get can get to the root of the issue. Listening well earns you respect and trust.

Why we are so bad at listening

Most of us like to talk; it’s our natural tendency. So instead of listening, we formulate responses or rebuttals, and as soon as it’s our turn to talk, we jump in. Sometimes we even interrupt. This is especially true when we disagree with what’s being said. We jump to conclusions and miss the point. We judge others and filter what they say through conscious and unconscious biases. And finally, we are distracted – distracted by the work that’s waiting for us after the meeting, our phones, email, kids, dogs, etc.

Become a better listener using these five tips

1. Be curious and ask questions. When people ask me how I can get people to open up to me quickly, I use my leadership superpower – my ability to ask powerful questions. If you want to be a better listener, pay attention to tone, word choice and body language to tune into emotions and underlying and unexpressed issues. Then ask probing questions such as, “Can you tell me what you mean by that?” Or, “How did that make you feel?” Or, “How would you like to handle this?” These types of questions allow you to go deeper into the conversation and understand what’s really being said.

2. Remove distractions. As the statistics above show, we are continually distracted and miss details and nuances when we aren’t paying attention. In these days of Zoom meetings, it’s easy to pretend you’re paying attention when you are actually reading an email or texting someone else. Stop doing this. The person speaking deserves your full attention. Listen carefully and engage in the conversation; doing so will build trust and credibility with your team and colleagues.

3. Let go of your agenda. Whether you have a point to make or want to exit the conversation to get back to work, you have an agenda. And that agenda can cause you to stop listening deeply. When you catch yourself wanting to interrupt or thinking about your rebuttal, slow down and ask yourself, “what’s one thing I like about what’s being said?” Then focus on this point and ask more questions. You can always come back to your point later.

4. Take notes. The act of writing what you hear helps you remember details more clearly. I love the idea that Sabina Nawaz promotes in her HBR article Become a Better Listener by Taking Notes. She outlines the use of Margin Notes here:

    • Set your page with a wide margin and take notes when someone else is talking. In the main body of your notes, capture only what the other person is saying. These don’t have to be verbatim; just jot down the key points. You can accurately quote individuals later.
    • In the margin, capture your ideas, judgments, rebuttals, and questions to each of the points you’ve written down. By marking them to the side, you separate your own thoughts from what others say. It lets you set aside (literally) your own voice and gives you space to listen to others. For example, when your boss excitedly outlines idea after idea for a product launch, you might note in the margin, “Ask about budget” or “Reminder about CEO memo.”
    • When you speak, only bring up items from your Margin Notes that haven’t already been addressed and are the highest priority and cross them off as you go. If you’re unable to raise some topics during the meeting and the items are important to you, tag them for follow-up.

5. Don’t interrupt or interject. Wait for the person to finish, thoughtfully think about what you want to say, then add to the conversation. There is nothing that says “I’m not listening,” like cutting someone off mid-sentence. And if you do interrupt or interject, catch yourself, apologize, let the person finish speaking, and then reply thoughtfully.

Put these five tips into practice, and you’ll become a better listener. You’ll have better relationships and be more successful – just like Bernard Baruch, American financier and advisor to a few U.S. Presidents, once said, “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”

Like this? Read my blog on how to ask better questions.

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