Leadership means really listening

published by the Nashville Business Journal

After 50-plus years in business I have learned more through listening than any other practice. I have soaked in wisdom from executives, peers, subordinates, frontline workers, competitors and business partners. There is simply no limit to what leaders can learn through purposeful listening. 

Looking back, I consider the time I spent listening to workers inside Tractor Supply stores invaluable. Team members talked to me about all they had learned and observed from customers. I heard about potential new products, ideas for improving operations, issues with inventory replenishment and even opportunities for new store locations. Listening wasn’t that hard, but it worked like magic.

However there are so many things that can get in the way of good listening in a business setting. Start your listening exercises by moving these common obstacles out of the way first:

  • Manually shut off the phone, terminal and other potential distractions.
  • Get out from behind your desk to talk (and listen) face-to-face.
  • Concentrate on just listening! Learn to ignore surrounding interruptions.

Then conduct your listening in a professional manner and work to control potential impediments to good listening. Let’s start with a list of what not to do: 

  • Don’t let stiff or guarded body language send the wrong message.
  • Don’t look around at other distractions. Make sustained eye contact.
  • Don’t prejudge, no matter your personal thoughts and experiences.
  • Don’t let emotions enter the process. Try to remain a neutral information collector. 
  • Don’t disagree until thoughts are complete; then clarify with thoughtful questions.

Now on to the “do” list for more effective listening:

  • Stay focused on the conversation at hand. Try to keep your mind from wandering.
  • Listen 75% of the time; talk intelligently 25%.
  • Ask probing questions for better understanding, but only when socially appropriate.
  • Stay on topic. It’s better to hear a lot about one topic than a little about a dozen.
  • If you have a thought, don’t interrupt. Make a note to discuss it later in the conversation.

For those really important conversations, make sure you’re extra prepared to listen well by reviewing past notes and current reports. Write down in advance your key thoughts, ideas and potential questions to ask. If you ever have a disagreement about a fact, stop and look it up. Debating details can be a waste of time and emotion.

It’s easy to see why good listeners are often perceived as more intelligent—they probably are! Listening allows us to learn more richly about more subjects and use this knowledge to become more effective leaders. Over time good listeners earn greater respect from associates and build a stronger reputation within an organization. Maybe it’s time to stop talking—and begin focusing on the art of listening. 

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