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Leadership Lesson #8: Learn to Listen

by George Virtue, CPA, CA, Managing Partner

You might think that listening is not something that we would need to learn. Unless you are hard of hearing, what could possibly be difficult about listening? It took me a long time to learn how to listen; my inability to truly listen to what others were really saying held me back in my leadership development. My problem was twofold: I talked more than I listened (I guess I felt that I had lots to say!); and I only listened with my ears. What I learned is that it is hard to listen when you are talking, and that we hear with not only with our ears but also with our eyes, our brains and our hearts.

I realized that I had a problem: I love to solve problems and when someone started talking I started problem solving. In fact, I was so focused on solving the problem I often drew a conclusion rapidly and felt compelled to share my wisdom with the other person before they were even finished talking!  My brain was so focused on the problem that I was trying to solve that I stopped listening. And guess what happened? My solutions often missed the mark because I had solved the wrong problem!

So here are a few tips that took me too long to learn. I hope that you will not make the same mistake.

Look for body language. Is the speaker leaning into the conversation with open arms indicating an open and receptive attitude or crossing their arms in protection? What might you do or say to respond to this? Check to see if the speaker is avoiding eye contact.

Listen to what is NOT being said. If the speaker is avoiding a difficult or emotional issue, try to create a safe environment of them to open up. Pay attention to humor and sarcasm – there is often an element of truth hidden under the surface of these comments.

When you do speak, ask questions to clarify and explore. Resist the urge to share your commentary until you are sure that you fully understand the issue. When in doubt – ask don’t tell. And don’t fear the sound of silence. Often, we feel the need to fill the void – resist this urge as well. Frequently the most effective form of communication is to say nothing and allow the speaker to gather the courage to put their thoughts into words.

Finally, in order to listen effectively, put yourself in the other’s position. What do you think they are looking for from you?  How do you think you would like to be spoken to if you were in their position?  Think first – then respond.

We must understand that hearing and listening are not the same thing. While most of us have the ability to hear, my experience is that few of us have the ability to truly listen. Listening is an intentional activity and a skill that must be learned and practiced. So the next time that you find yourself in a meaningful conversation try this last tip: shut up and listen!

Click here for a downloadable PDF of Leadership Lesson #8: Learn to Listen

Click here to read Leadership Lesson #7: Delegate - But Do it Right
Click here to read Leadership Lesson #6: Understand the Power of Conflict
Click here to read Leadership Lesson #5: Build a Real Team
Click here to read Leadership Lesson #4: Choose Your Culture
Click here to read Leadership Lesson #3: Figure Out Where You Want to Go and How You Will Get There
Click here to read Leadership Lesson #2: Make Sure that Everyone (Including You) is Doing the Right Job
Click here to read Leadership Lesson #1: Get the Right People on the Team

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