Develop Your Listening Skills to Become a Better Leader
Listening is key to effective people management and professional mastery, but it may be the most underrated leadership skill. Having a model for what good listening is, and some techniques to practice, can help you become not only a better listener, but also a better leader and learner.
A common approach to good listening is active listening. This method includes not interrupting, providing nonverbal cues that you are paying attention, and repeating the key things the person said. But really great listeners do more, including asking questions and giving feedback.
Listening isn’t a passive activity; instead, as a Harvard Business Review analysis of what makes outstanding listeners shows, the important thing is to create a collaborative environment where both parties can explore ideas and solutions:
While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of—and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.
There are different levels of listening, and each level builds off the one before it. Not every conversation will require your highest, most attentive level of listening, but it’s a good idea to practice your best form often so you can gradually become a great listener.
Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT, developed a model of four levels of listening for people wanting to become good leaders. It addresses the listener’s mindset and how that affects the experience of the speaker. The first level is what he calls downloading, or listening from habits. This is the most basic level of listening. The second level is factual listening with an open mind, taking into account your own outside experiences. The third is empathic listening with an “open heart,” or connecting with the speaker’s experience. The fourth is generative listening, what he calls listening with an “open will,” which helps you and the speaker become open to change together.
As you move from the first level to the fourth, you connect more with the speaker and his circumstances and are better able to help him navigate whatever he is discussing with you. Scharmer suggests that great teachers and coaches commonly operate using the fourth level of listening.
Becoming a better listener is hard work, especially when you are in a busy environment with many pressures and distractions. But taking the time to develop your listening skills will help you be a better manager, leader, and contributor.