Do you feel alienated from your team? Here’s how to improve your listening skills
‘You breathe well,’ she told me, ‘but you exhale horribly.
Breathing deeply to fill our lungs takes work, and for optimal performance when exercising, exhaling must be as well. I realized that unless I could also learn to exhale to my diaphragm and pelvic floor, I was missing out on the benefits of this type of breathing.
Deep breathing is like deep listening – we strive to speak, but we need the same effort to hear and understand another point of view. Some leaders listen without hearing because they already assume they know better, but this ends up alienating them from their team. With the uncertainty of the pandemic, workers leaving jobs in droves, and an increasingly competitive marketplace, strong teams are more critical than ever, and allowing poor listening within those teams is risky business.
If you’ve been a bad listener in the past, here’s what you can do to improve those skills and, in turn, your team culture.
Think about yourself first
Much like deep breathing when exercising, some people can go their whole lives without thinking about their own listening skills because they think they know how to do it. To listen is to fully understand, so it has to come from deep within – not through the diaphragm but through honest self-reflection. Listening without putting in the work to understand is a waste of time. If you go into a situation with an idea, stay open to the possibility that your idea could be improved. Leaders who fail to reflect on their areas of improvement will not be leaders for very long.
Leaders are people that others follow, so set an example for your team. Identify how you listen best and make it a habit. For example, I listen better with a pen in my hand, which allows me to take notes and reinforce what I have just heard. Some people may prefer a keyboard, but make sure you feel comfortable with the app you’re using so you don’t end up troubleshooting instead of listening. Others may simply need to maintain eye contact or think about what they heard to confirm their understanding. A leader whose behavior encourages an environment where everyone takes the time to truly learn what type of listener they are and act accordingly results in better collaboration and a more innovative and productive team.
Take a good look at the others
When you really listen to others, you can gauge their intentions more clearly and better recognize poor listening skills if they exist. A leader who listens can identify people unable to listen to their peers by monitoring behaviors that manifest as disrespect (towards you or within the group) fracturing your team and breaking it apart. The leader of a fractured group neither leads nor accomplishes anything. Instead, let managers know that they need to reflect and improve their listening skills for the good of the team.
A lack of respect is a great sign of a bad listener, but so is fear of others. Early in my career I joined an organization as COO, and there was one of my peers who thought he was dynamite – just like the ownership team who originally hired him . On the surface, his solid plan of action made it seem like he had all the answers. He thought everyone was behind him, but I saw people who were too scared to voice their criticisms or suggestions, which meant they weren’t being heard. Fear limited their motivation to act freely and caused them to distrust their leader. When fear is how a team reacts to someone who can’t listen, especially when that person is a leader, no one else on the team ends up listening either.
Better listeners have better results
True listening is about respect, but it also creates more desirable outcomes. When you stand out as a true listener, people are more likely to want to align with your team. Feeling ignored, on the other hand, can make it difficult for people to care about the success of the team. Taking the time to present ideas and feedback to a leader is a big effort that deserves the minimum of courtesy to be heard and understood. Anything less hurts the team dynamic.
When you really start to hear other people, you also notice the difference in being really heard. People who believe their boss will never really listen to them end up never listening to their boss. If they know their input will just hit a brick wall, they sit back and wait for their orders to come in, which lowers productivity and kills innovation. However, when people know their voice will be heard, they feel confident to voice their ideas and speak up when they see areas for improvement.
In the rush to own a business, it can be difficult to take the time to listen. Once, my son needed to remind me to listen with my eyes so that I realized he didn’t feel heard. So make an effort to pause, make eye contact, and show your intention to understand another perspective when talking to others. The more you do it, the more you start to believe that making people feel heard will get better results. Just like in exercise, with enough practice, entering every conversation ready to listen becomes as easy as breathing.