“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Steven R. Covey

My mantra for coaching leaders and anyone working on their relationships: “Listen, listen, listen…think…act…repeat.”

leadership-mindful-listeningBecoming a better leader requires a host of skills, not least of which is learning to listen effectively. Yet when we think of communications skill development we think of speaking and the need to inspire others. We get consumed by telling people what to do or making a point. We forget to make listening a priority. It makes sense when you think about it, how can one inspire others without listening to their wants, needs, and desires?

Listening to others conveys engagement, empathy and respect, whether you’re meeting with your boss or an employee. We all know from personal experience how nice it is to feel heard. Good listening starts with a desire to hear what others have to say. Leadership requires listening, if you’re unwilling to learn the concerns of those who work for you, you can’t really lead them.

The Best Leaders Listen Better

In an article by Sue Shellenbarger at WSJ.com, we learn that, “only about 10% of what was said in a face-to-face conversation after a brief distraction, according to a 1987 study, remains a key gauge of conversational recall.” Of course, this was long before the age of universal digital communication that we enjoy today, and which has added untold numbers of distraction to our daily lives.

The greatest obstacle to listening effectively is our tendency to judge what others have to say based on our own preconceptions and biases, combined with a low expectation of hearing anything of value. The bottom line, we think too much! Thinking can ruin your ability to listen and lead. While much has been written on becoming a better listener, I think changing your mindset or being a more mindful listener is the most valuable. As outlined by Shellenbarger, this includes preparation prior to a conversation or presentation:

Before you can listen better, you must…

  • Clear your mind of distractions by doing a brain dump, making notes or task lists you can easily pick up again later.
  • Make a list of questions or topics you want to cover, to prevent brain freeze.
  • Plan in advance to limit the time you spend talking to 20% or 25% of the conversation.
  • Drop any assumption that you already know what the other person will say.
  • Put down, ignore or turn off phones, other mobile devices and computers.

In other words, being ready to listen is the key to being present and actually listening. When you are present to another you give them an invaluable gift. You serve as a mirror so they can hear themselves think and express and you create the opportunity to hear what they are not saying and feel what they are feeling. There’s a Zen kaon that asks, “Can you listen without thinking?” My answer is, “Yes, but it takes a lot of practice.” If you want to enhance your capacity to lead, mindful listening is a powerful practice.

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” ― Bernard M. Baruch

In what ways do you find that listening better makes you a better leader? How does it increase others’ performance? What tools do you use to be a better listener?