When we think about strong leaders, there are several traits that might come to mind right away such as the ability for them to speak confidently, to effectively delegate tasks, or to find creative solutions to problems but there's one trait that's often overlooked yet essential when it comes to being a strong leader: the ability to actively listen to their team.
In order to have a strong team, it's crucial that your team feels heard and understood, and this can be done by listening. Actively and effectively listening means much more than just hearing what someone is saying. It means actually understanding what someone is trying to tell you by giving them your full attention, asking questions and getting clarification. Actively listening to your team can improve team morale, retention rate and the overall value of the work being produced by your team.
While active listening may be a communication skill that comes more naturally to some, it's still a skill that needs to be actively nurtured and developed.
Below are 6 ways managers can improve their active listening skills.
1. Ensure You're Offering the Opportunity to Have a Conversation with Your Employees
The first thing you need to do to set up the opportunity for discussions with your employees is make sure you're scheduling the time to meet with them. Consider setting up a weekly or bi-weekly 1:1 with each of your team members as well as a regular cadence for team calls. This will give you the opportunity to engage with each of your employees individually, and in a group setting with your entire team.
2. Give Anyone Speaking Your Entire Attention
One of the most important things you can do when meeting with someone is give them your full attention. Stay present in the conversation and don't let your mind wander or become distracted. Staying present in the conversation may be harder than you think it is. For many of us, we'll start to think about what we want to say next instead of fully taking in what the speaker is saying. By doing this, it's easy to catch the first part of what's being said and miss the second half. This is also true if someone is sharing a problem that they are currently having, you may want to immediately think of a solution to help them but the most important thing you can do in this moment is to stop and fully listen.
3. Be Comfortable with Sitting in Silence
One of the reasons why one may want to think of a solution or something to say in response to what someone is saying to them is the silence that comes after finishing a thought. Silence may feel uncomfortable but it doesn't have to be. By giving yourself and the speaker a moment to pause, you're giving both of yourselves the opportunity to gain a little more thought and insight on the topic being discussed. It gives you a moment to digest what was said and how to feel about it. This is the moment when you should consider what to say next, not while someone is still speaking.
4. Don't Forget to Ask Questions
Don't be afraid to ask questions in order to help you understand what the person is saying. Never feel embarrassed about asking questions, they can help make the speaker feel validated, and they'll know that you're listening and trying to fully understand them. For example, you can mirror someone when trying to get clarification on what they are trying to tell you. You can try: "I heard XYZ, is this what you meant?" Also, if there's a specific aspect you're unsure about you can also ask, "I really want to understand more about XYZ. Can you explain that part a little more?" One of the most important parts of active listening is making sure that you understand what the speaker is trying to tell you so don't be afraid to ask for clarification, just make sure you're asking questions at the appropriate time and not cutting off the person speaking.
5. Emphasize and Summarize
After the speaker is finished talking, it may be a good idea to summarize what they said to make sure you fully understand. This can be done as a mirrored question as mentioned above or as the lead into what you want to respond with. Your response doesn't always need to include a solution but it should always include empathy. For example, if you have an employee who is expressing frustration for having too big of a workload, your response can include something like, "I understand that you're feeling overwhelmed by your current workload right now. I've been there before, let's talk about what should currently be prioritized and go from there" or "If I'm understanding correctly, you're feeling really overwhelmed right now. I understand how you're feeling, let's talk about potential solutions".
6. Be Sure to Follow-Up
Whether you had a conversation with an employee who is going through a lot right now or someone briefly mentioned feeling overwhelmed with a project during your last 1:1, always be sure to follow-up. Ask how things are going or if they've improved - the follow-up will show the speaker that you really listened and understood them. If you took any action items from the conversation, make sure you let your employee know where you stand on them. Even if there was an issue you weren't able to resolve, being honest about it is a lot better than just never mentioning it again.
What to Remember Going Forward
- Set up a regular cadence of 1:1 meetings with your direct reports
- Get rid of any distractions around you during meetings
- Ask questions for clarification
- Summarize what was said to make sure you fully understand
- Follow-up with the speaker whether it's with a solution or just to acknowledge the conversation
- Listen just to talk - acknowledge that you don't need to fill the silence after the speaker is done talking right away
- Cut off the speaker to ask questions - know that questions are important and should be asked, but they need to be asked at the right time
- Try to offer a solution right away before you understand how the speaker is feeling - empathy and understanding is key when it comes to working towards a solution
- Avoid the speaker if you can't find a solution - transparency is important in order to build trust
If you follow the tips above, you'll only improve your active listening skills as a manager and, in turn, create a stronger team that you'll be able to work with more effectively.