Trust is the basis for effective leadership and every successful working relationship. Open, constructive communication is the basis of trusting relationships, and effective listening is at the heart of constructive communication. Ironically, much of the communication education we receive throughout life focuses on speaking, not listening. Yet, 80 percent of problem-solving is listening. Set the stage to greatly enhance your effectiveness by becoming a better listener.
Listen openly. Listen attentively and completely to others. This is especially important when you need to understand the perspective of those with whom you disagree. When we disagree with someone, it’s easy to make assumptions about or misinterpret what they say. Attentive, open listening allows us to hear the intended message without needing to assume anything. Providing an opportunity to be fully heard is a powerful gesture of respect which will generally encourage the other party to respond in kind.
Allow the speaker to finish before formulating your response. Remember the last time someone’s response to you seemed confusing or disconnected because it was expressed before you had fully shared your perspective? The response was confusing because it was based on incomplete information. You can’t understand the situation from the speaker’s perspective while you are busy rehearsing what you are going to say next. Waiting to hear the entire message allows the speaker to stay focused and reduces defensiveness. It also gives you the benefit, as a listener, of being able to respond appropriately and accurately. When it’s your turn to state your point of view, it’s also more likely that the other party will listen to you.
Acknowledge that you have heard the speaker. Paraphrase, or restate in your own words, your understanding of what was said. This allows the speaker to clarify misunderstandings and encourages them to say more. Ask questions to clarify and optimize understanding. Questions should be asked in a genuine spirit of learning more. Whether or not you like or agree with the answers, they provide valuable information that helps you make good decisions. Take care to avoid questions in ways that are intended to solicit only the answer you want to hear, or can feel like an interrogation. Instead of “Why did you do that?” ask “What made you decide to do it that way?”
Deal with emotions – theirs and yours. Recognize that emotions are normal, needing to be expressed and “heard” in order for understanding. The emotions that arise in the midst of a disagreement make it especially difficult to listen. Keep emotions from escalating into problems by establishing ground rules such as:
• One person speaks at a time
• No yelling
• No personal attacks
• I will speak only for myself
• We will share “air” time
It’s the responsibility of the group to hold one another accountable to the ground rules and, thereby, keep emotions in check.
The significance of the relationship with one another cannot be overstated. Remember, as the people leader you are setting the tone for your team. Your ability and willingness to listen respectfully and openly to one another will significantly influence the willingness of team members to do the same.