On this blog and on our courses, we discuss the importance of self-awareness a great deal, but another highly essential skill a leader must possess is that of active listening.
This straightforward-sounding skill is, in reality, harder to master in practice, but it brings you, the leader, a range of benefits. The action you take after listening then has the opportunity to impact the organisation for the better.
In this post, we look at what active listening is and some of the advantages it creates. We’ll also suggest exercises you could perform to develop your own active listening skills and provide you with some insight into how active listening can make the difference between promotion to a more senior management position and remaining in your current role.
What is active listening?
Active listening is a type of listening in which you make a conscious effort to hear the whole message when someone is speaking to you, rather than only part of it.
Often when we’re listening to someone, we’re doing so with the intent to respond, instead of to understand their message, as the late Stephen R. Covey observed in his famous personal development book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. We’ve become too distracted by our thoughts and are preparing to reply or are already responding. We miss the full message.
Different people have different styles of listening. Here are some of the main styles:
- People-oriented: These listeners want to find out about the person, and about how they think or feel about their message.
- Action-oriented: These listeners are interested in what the speaker wants, whether it’s a sale, a donation, a vote, or something else. Action-oriented listeners may find it hard to sit through explanations, descriptions, and other elements speakers use to build their case.
- Content-oriented: The main interest of content-oriented listeners is in the message itself, its meaning, and whether it makes sense or is accurate. They’re looking for solid, well-developed information.
- Time-oriented: Getting to the point quickly is what time-oriented listeners focus on in a speaker. They can grow impatient if they have to listen to long explanations or tolerate a slow delivery, and they may even become rude or hostile towards the speaker.
Active listening is a different style of listening and entails listening with all the senses so that the person speaking can see that we’re listening and feels that we’re hearing their message. We’re paying close attention to them.
It’s important to remain patient, neutral, and non-judgmental. You should avoid forming opinions too early in the conversation and resist the urge to interrupt the other person while they’re speaking or to inject with a question or a comment every time a silence or pause occurs during the conversation.
The benefits of active listening
Have you ever noticed how much more you notice or discover when you focus more closely on something? Focus can provide valuable insight and change how you approach situations. This is why active listening is so essential. Here are some of the main benefits:
Active listening builds trust and connections
Listening actively to someone encourages people to share their feelings and confide in you. They don’t feel as if you’re judging them. They feel welcome to speak freely, knowing there will be no interruptions and no interjections. They become more willing to work with you, which can create opportunities and help you to complete work more quickly (and possibly them, too, depending on the exchange between themselves and you).
Active listening helps you avoid missing crucial information
When you’re listening actively, you’re engaging on a more focused level with the speaker, and this allows you to absorb specific items of information. If the speaker is instructing you in some way or is conveying a message that you must share with others, you’ll be able to recall more of the details.
Active listening allows you to identify problems
The close attention you’re paying through active listening will enable you to detect challenges or problems that your team or others within the organisation are facing or could face further into the future, sooner. Being able to identify issues early empowers you to tackle them before they develop into bigger, potentially more damaging issues.
Active listening helps build knowledge and understanding
Leaders always seek to improve their skills and knowledge, and because they’re focusing more, they absorb more information. When they learn something new, they can form a better understanding of the topic or subject because they’ve been able to retain more information, which they can then apply in the future.
How can I improve my active listening skills?
There are a variety of verbal and non-verbal signals you can offer to show that you’re listening to the person who is speaking to you:
- Paraphrasing, which involves summarising what the speaker has just said, to clarify details.
- Asking open-ended questions, which allows you to gain more details on the subject of the conversation.
- Asking specific, probing questions, so that the speaker narrows down a broad topic for you.
- Making statements of agreement, so that the speaker knows you’re following what they’re saying.
- Maintaining eye contact, but keeping your gaze natural so that the speaker knows you’re focusing on them and not anything else in the vicinity.
- Nodding to inform the speaker that you’re able to process the meaning of their message.
There are specific exercises you can participate in with others to improve your skills as well, such as
- Asking someone to tell a story and only ask them questions about the story.
- Reflecting on a regular discussion you have, visualising yourself listening actively to the other individual(s) and then reflecting on the benefits of this (listen first, speak second).
- A picture-drawing exercise in which someone describes an image to you, and you must draw this image based on what the person is telling you.
The difference between aspiring leaders who listen, and those who don’t
If you’re an aspiring leader, active listening is a skill we suggest you practise. Being someone people believe they can trust is an important management and leadership skill because they’ll be more willing to work with you and to share information, whereas if you’re a poor listener, they won’t confide in you or come forward with certain details. This lack of trust creates a disconnect between you and others, resulting in communication breakdowns, and, as we’ve highlighted in previous posts, can lead to lower productivity levels, lower profitability and various other undesirable consequences for the organisation.
Leaders must have a vision, and, to achieve this vision, they must form a strategy. Strategic planning and thinking, especially if the organisation is about to enter a process of change, requires the ability to envisage potential setbacks and design a contingency plan to address them if they do, or, better still, pre-empt them altogether. Active listening is exceptionally valuable here. If you can detect problems early, through active listening, to keep operations running smoothly, you’ll capture the attention of superiors.
The leader who listens passively
Imagine a leader who possesses a more passive style of listening. This leader becomes distracted during conversations and, as a result, misses critical details or, crucially, may struggle to understand new concepts or new approaches as quickly as leaders sometimes need to. Adaptability is another important leadership attribute, and this can require the ability to learn new things fast.
This same leader, through their lack of listening skills, will also be breeding mistrust on their team or elsewhere in the organisation. The higher a leader ascends in their organisation, the more impactful their decisions will be. Organisations may not wish to promote people to more senior roles if they feel that, as a result of not listening carefully enough to capture information, this person will reach decisions without considering all the necessary details.
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Listening actively is a sign of focus, and can make us alert to opportunities, potential setbacks, and valuable information that escape us when we adopt a more passive style of listening. Trust-building and connection that result in a greater willingness of others to share information are major outcomes of this skill.
We offer a range of courses, including Chartered Management Institute (CMI)-accredited courses, to help you improve your management skills, including active listening, and bring extra value to your organisation. To find out more about our training courses, visit our Courses page and click on the relevant course, or send us an email to email@example.com, send us a message using the form on our Contact page or call us on 0161 826 3139. Feel free to ask us any questions you wish to about the courses so that you can choose the right training course and empower yourself as one of the leaders of the future.
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