Study after study has shown that listening is critical to leadership effectiveness. So why are so few leaders good at it?
Too often, leaders take command of conversations and spend too much time worrying about what they’ll say next in defense or rebuttal. Leaders can also react too quickly, get distracted during a conversation or fail to make the time to listen to others. Finally, leaders can be ineffective at listening if they’re overly competitive, multitask too much or if they let their egos get out of hand.
Research shows that listeners listen best with they exhibit genuine empathy for other people’s perspectives. Henry Ford once said that if there is any great secret for achieving success, it lies in the ability to put oneself in another person’s place and see things from his point of view -as well as from one’s own.
Research has linked several notable behavior sets with empathic listening. The first involves recognizing all verbal and nonverbal cues, including tone, facial expressions and other body language. Sensitive leaders pay as much attention to what others are not saying as to what they are. They understand how others are feeling and acknowledge those feelings.
The second set of empathic listening behaviors fall under processing. These behaviors include those that we most commonly associate with everyday listening, such as understanding the meaning of the other person’s messages and keeping track of the main points of the conversation. Leaders who are effective at processing assure others that they remember what others have said, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and capture global themes and key messages from the conversation.
The third set of behaviors, which fall under responding, are those that assure others that listening has occurred and encourage communication to continue. Leaders who are effective responders give appropriate replies through verbal acknowledgments, clarifying questioning or paraphrasing. Important nonverbal behaviors include facial expressions, eye contact and body language. Other effective responses might include head nods and the use of acknowledging phrases such as “That’s a great point.”
Overall, it’s important for leaders to recognize the multidimensionality of empathetic listening and engage in all forms of behaviors. Empathic listening builds trust and respect, enables people to reveal their emotions, facilitates information sharing and creates an environment that encourages collaborative problem-solving.
Beyond exhibiting the behaviors associated with empathetic listening, follow-up is an important step to ensure that others understand that true listening has occurred. This assurance may come in the form of incorporating feedback into the work at hand or following through on promises made during meetings. However they do it, leaders must find ways to demonstrate that they’ve understood and absorbed the messages directed their way.
The ability and willingness to listen with empathy is often what sets a leader apart. In a recent interview, Paul Bennett, chief creative officer at IDEO, advised leaders to listen more and ask the right questions. Bennett shared that “for most of my 20s I assumed that the world was more interested in me than I was in it, so I spent most of my time talking, usually in a quite uninformed way, about whatever I thought, rushing to be clever, thinking about what I was going to say to someone rather than listening to what they were saying to me.”
Slowing down, engaging with other people rather than endlessly debating, taking the time to hear and learn from others, and asking brilliant questions -these are the keys to success.
(Christine M. Riordan is the provost and a professor of management at the University of Kentucky.)