It’s time to rediscover the lost art of listening.

As an executive coach specializing in leadership, I conduct a lot of 360 assessments. If you’re unfamiliar with that process, it’s a development tool that gathers feedback from a client’s supervisor, colleagues, and direct reports to see what’s working – and what’s not – in terms of their performance and productivity.

Although some jaded types look askance at the 360 process I find it incredibly valuable. Given that most people are far more comfortable sharing candid feedback with an objective outsider (i.e. me) than they are with the colleague who needs the feedback, it’s a powerful way to identify areas for improvement.

After seventeen years in this field, it no longer surprises me that one of the biggest areas of complaint from employees is that their leaders are not great listeners. Granted, those leaders may be juggling huge projects and managing lots of people, but that’s no excuse when your hard-working team deserves your time, energy, and respect. And your ear.

See how you’re doing with basic listening skills by asking yourself the following:

·      Do you maintain appropriate eye contact with the person who’s speaking?

·      Do you lean in, mirror body language, and show the speaker that you are actively engaged in what he/she is saying?

·      Do you refrain from interrupting until a break in the speaker’s thoughts?

·      Do you summarize or reflect the speaker’s ideas in positive ways back to them?

·      Do you ask thoughtful questions that encourage further dialogue?

·      Do you put your phone, computer, and other distractions away until the conversation has been completed?

If you said yes to all or most of the questions, good for you. You’re a good listener. But there’s a deeper level of listening that the best leaders demonstrate – the kind that makes the speaker feel like the most important person in the room. It is called “focused listening.” The listener’s caring attitude can encourage the speaker to share openly without feeling judged or chastised.

Dating back to tribal times, when we had to quickly distinguish friend from foe, people can tell pretty quickly whether you genuinely care about them simply by your level of attentiveness. Focused listening requires a deeper discipline than basic listening; it calls for commitment, concentration and caring. When you routinely practice focused listening, you can create a culture based on trust, respect, and an open flow of information.

Try the following to take your listening skills to a deeper level:

·      Experiment with A-B-A communication – I witnessed this when I toured a nuclear enrichment plant a few years ago.  A technician initiated a process with a verbal announcement of the procedure about to take place, the other technician echoed back a confirmation of the announcement and then the originating tech, confirmed the confirmation. In other words, it was an A-B-A check-and-balance scenario –  A: I say something, B: you confirm what I just said, and A: I confirm your confirmation. If this works in a nuclear power plant, you can be pretty sure it will work in your office.

·      Before attending a function where you’ll meet a lot of new people, make the conscious commitment to remember the names of as many attendees as possible.  When you’re in “the zone” and you’ve shut out distractions it’s a lot easier to remember names. And as they say, a person’s own name is the sweetest music.

·      If you feel your attention getting diverted, zero in on the eyes. Whether in a social or business situation, concentrating on a speaker’s face as she talks will keep you present in the conversation.

·      Connect with the speaker by genuinely caring about what he/she has to say.  Listen to the intent behind the words and observe body language and demeanor.  Fuel your focused listening with compassion and curiosity about the other person’s point of view, even if it’s completely different from your own.

·      Choose 5-7 words that the speaker has said and repeat those back in your own way. When we pick up on others’ words, phrases, and themes, we create a powerful unconscious connection.

·      Use focused listening to pose tough questions including, are we solving the right problem? What are next steps? What’s my/your role in the process? Only through listening deeply can you create the type of meaningful exchange that leads to positive action. And isn’t that what we really want?