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A few weeks ago we talked about 5 listening mistakes leaders make. Here are seven things leaders should practice to become better listeners.  

Most people (especially those in positions of leadership) don’t listen. When you give full attention to what people have to say, you set yourself apart as an engaging leader.

As a leader, we naturally want people to listen to us and be influenced by us. Paradoxically, people resist listening to us unless they feel that we are truly listening to them and are open to their influence. This resistance may either take an active form, such as stating directly that they are opposed to your position. Or the resistance may be passive, such as appearing to listen while actually thinking about other topics, or agreeing to your position with no intention to putting it into action. But make no mistake: if someone is resisting your influence for no apparent reason, the secret reason is likely that they feel you don’t fully understand their perspective.

Entire books and workshops are devoted to teaching a set of skills called “active listening.” It’s called active to emphasize that effective listening requires effort, concentration, and action. But to increase your leadership influence, the skills are much less important than your intention.

If your intentions are false, no amount of careful wording or good posture will help. If your intentions are good, even clumsy language won’t hinder you all that much. Listening is only powerful and effective if it is authentic. Authenticity means that you are listening because you are curious and because you care, not just because you are supposed to.

Because authenticity is more important than the active skills, I focus on authentic listening rather than active listening.

How to Listen Authentically

Authentic listening begins with the proper attitude and intentions. Your attitude should be one of genuine caring, curiosity, and openness to being influenced by the person you are with. Your intentions should be to fully understand the speaker, encourage her to fully express herself about this topic, and validate her thoughts and feelings. These five tips will help:

  • Be truly present. Focus all your attention on the person you are with at this moment. Look at him in the eyes. Care enough to genuinely listen.
  • Concentrate on what the speaker is saying. Pay attention to her facial gestures and body language, to better understand the thoughts and emotions that may be driving what she is saying.
  • Ask questions to learn more. Be curious about what he thinks and why he thinks that way. Is there new information or a perspective that you should consider?
  • Occasionally repeat back what you’ve heard, but in your own words. Repeating and paraphrasing gives her a chance to confirm that you understood her correctly and completely, and often it will prompt her to divulge further information. Try to fully understand her position and her thoughts and feelings about that position.
  • Think about what it would be like to be in the speaker’s shoes. Can you understand why he feels or thinks the way he does? If his thoughts or feelings don’t seem reasonable to you, then you may not yet have enough information — or you may not yet be regarding him as your equal.
  • Validate the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. As you come to fully understand her position, thoughts, and feelings, acknowledge the feelings that seem reasonable to you. For example, “I can appreciate how that would have felt frustrating.”
  • If appropriate, also validate the speaker’s competence. As leaders, we are wired to move things forward, so we often are quick to suggest a solution or idea. But the speaker may just want someone to allow him to process his own thoughts and ideas out loud. Furthermore, it’s powerful when you cultivate leadership and creativity in others. Often, you can be most helpful by simply acknowledging his ability to capably solve the problem.

It may take some practice for authentic listening to come naturally, but keeping these tips in mind can help. When you begin listening to others with authenticity you’ll be setting yourself apart as an engaging leader.

For other information on authentic listening see:

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the podcasts Engaging Leader and Workforce Health Engagement, and he is CEO (chief engagement officer) of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!