“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Maya Angelou’s quote above confirms that as leaders, sometimes what we say is not the most important skill. The impact leaders have on others is not always about choosing the right words or making the best decisions – often it is simply relating well that has the biggest impact on others. And listening well is a central part of that.
Listening comprises the majority of our communication – more than writing, reading or even speaking. Listening well is a special challenge – and we’re fighting tough odds. The average adult’s attention span is 22 seconds, which means just moments into a conversation we could already be struggling to stay engaged. Being a mindful listeniner is a choice – and it’s also a skill that we can always improve.
Know Your Goal
Whether we’re successful listeners depends on the context. If we’re listening to empathize or support, simply nodding and encouraging elaboration might be the best. The listener would want to avoid interrupting or judging, and aim to make sure the speaker feels heard. Yet if we’re listening for understanding or clarity, especially in the workplace, the rules might change. Interruptions might be allowed and questions encouraged – and making a final judgment might be the ultimate goal. Knowing your goal depending on the situation is the first clue in sensing the best way to listen.
Self-awareness is an important step in growing leadership skills. I want to think I’m a great listener, but I know myself well enough to see areas of improvement. Sometimes I catch my mind wandering when I’m not interested, or I’ll tune out if I strongly disagree with the speaker. Other pitfalls might include jumping to conclusions, interrupting or one-upping. I had a boss once who would listen very distractedly for a few moments, and then jump in with advice before even understanding what I was saying. It was discouraging, but I’m sure it was meant to be supportive. Often our intentions are good, but we may not know how we really impact others until we take time to reflect on our actions from another’s standpoint.
Grow Your Skills
Listening is definitely a skill we can improve. One fun exercise is to spend a whole conversation letting another person talk, and only speaking up to answer questions they might pose. We practiced this in the Conflict & Facilitation course this summer, and I was amazed at how different it was from most conversations. As the listener, I struggled not to speak up or share my own stories. But when it was my turn to talk, I felt very supported and even loved.
Paraphrasing is another strategy – we can repeat or summarize the speaker to show we hear and understand them. We might also try letting the speaker finish her thought every time before we jump in with our own opinions or advice. The best way to start listening mindfully might simply be to commit to setting aside electronics during face-to-face conversations.
Find more tips of active listening for leaders from Forbes. What are your tips for listening mindfully?