Do you want to know something shocking?
At least, it was shocking to me.
I recently analyzed the data for my Sphere of Influence research on how people use the twelve different interaction styles, and the results were a landslide. Of 6861 people surveyed, guess what the least used style was?
You guessed it: Listen. Based on both 360 feedback and self-report measures, and despite its overwhelming importance, this is precisely the interactive behavior that most of us underuse.
Listening is a key trust-builder, and it shows others that we’re invested in maintaining positive relationships. It’s how we avoid miscommunications and conflict at work, and it’s especially important in leadership.
Maybe we need a refresher!
In addition to what I’ve just covered, it helps you:
- Connect your team members’ different ideas
- Invite new perspectives and thus, understand more potential angles to a problem, and
- Make others feel heard, respected, and valued
There are even many beautiful quotes about listening, which delve right into why we’re so bad at it and why it’s critical:
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
— Stephen R. Covey
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”
— Dalai Lama
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
So we don’t underuse this style because we don’t know why it’s important; in theory, we do.
But when do we really learn how to become good listeners? When are we taught about the importance of stepping back, clearing our heads, and listening to understand?
At school, from our teachers? Or at work?
It’s hard to have much influence on others without good listening skills. When you don’t listen, a few things can happen:
The risk of misunderstandings rises as people rely on assumptions. This can lead to inefficiencies and costly mistakes.
People might stop sharing their ideas and insights with you, which can stifle creativity and innovation.
Others might feel underappreciated or disrespected, and lose their respect for you in return. You might start to see engagement levels drop in your team or organization.
Building on the last point, staff retention can suffer if you’re a leader who doesn’t listen to their team. If you can’t pick up on your employees’ concerns and respond to them thoughtfully, don’t be surprised if your top performers start looking elsewhere for a role where they would feel more valued.
So are you a good listener in day-to-day life? That depends.
Do you know when to give others the floor when you’re leading a team? How about when you’re collaborating or brainstorming as a group?
This subtle skill doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so knowing that you do these things well is a good start.
But that’s not all it takes to be a strong listener; there is more to it:
- Do you often step back to let others contribute, or elaborate?
- Can you use silence to encourage others to their perspectives?
- Do you often take a neutral stance in your conversations?
- Is it easy for you to give others the floor and hold back from chiming in or taking over?
As you can see, “Listen” (or the “Tell Me” style) is multifaceted. So congratulations if you answered YES to most of these questions—you’re probably a very good listener!
If you’re like many others and can see some room for improvement, the following tips will help you add this style to your arsenal.
These tips include a mix of reflection prompts and practical exercises that will help you listen better and get more out of your interactions.
1. Be Modest
Strong listeners are good at showing others kindness and respect during interactions—also known as being modest. They don’t feel a pressing need to be in the limelight; rather, their goal is to make others feel positive.
In practice, being modest means striking a healthy balance between contributing to and staying quiet during interactions. So ask yourself, what kind of balance do your daily conversations with colleagues have at the moment?
If you feel you could work on being more passive, it might be helpful to create a table and stick it on your desk. Make one column for “Situations where I should speak,” and another for “Situations where I should stay silent” and tick the column that corresponds with your goal for a conversation before it begins.
Try this out for a few days and see how your interactions change!
2. Keep A Low(er) Profile
Remember this law of influence: Following behavior encourages Leading behavior? The more you take a back seat in conversations, the more your conversation partner will naturally be inclined to contribute.
If you want to hear more from others, very often, all you need to do is keep in the background. You can do this by changing your mindset:
- List the pros of taking a backseat during interactions, and don’t stop until you have at least seven good reasons
- If you get stuck with this list, ask others around you for help
- When you feel tempted to “lead” a conversation or step up and contribute, remind yourself of these reasons to get into the right mindset.
3. Show Humility
Rather like being modest, showing humility is about putting others first. This means focusing on your conversation partner(s) and being open and receptive to their feelings, thoughts, and needs.
You can achieve this during conversations by:
- Keeping the spotlight off yourself
- Focusing intently on what others are saying, rather than letting your thoughts distract you
- Being eager to understand others
- Giving them space to finish their sentences.
“You sentences” can be very useful if you want to demonstrate openness: beginning your sentences with “You” rather than “I” communicates a willingness to listen.
4. Try To Be Neutral
There are obviously times where it’s important to speak up, for example when not doing so might lead to a poor decision. But when maintaining a positive relationship is more important, it’s helpful to take a neutral stance, or “suspend your ego.”
If you consider yourself quite opinionated, try challenging yourself with this exercise. As you go through the following steps, your goal is to avoid agreeing or disagreeing with them—stay neutral!
- Bring up a topic that you know you and the other person have different opinions about
- Ask them to tell you how they feel about it
- As you continue talking, ask them to elaborate
- Stay focused on what they are saying, without correcting them or attempting to change their mind.
5. Pause and Observe
You don’t need to remain completely silent all the time to be a good listener. Often, well-timed pauses are all you need to observe the situation more closely and think about how to act or respond.
This is particularly true in tense social situations, when there’s a lot of uncertainty around a certain situation, or where you don’t know very much about the topic that’s being discussed.
Here’s a good way to practice pausing: during your next five interactions, count to three silently after your conversation partner finishes a sentence.