For Effective Communication, Listen… Really Listen

Listen Weakness“It’s not always what we say; often it’s what we allow the other person to say. By listening, we gain trust and make other people feel more comfortable with us.”  Rick Pitino


The ability to listen well, to really listen well, is one of those “soft skills” that distinguish effective leaders from run-of-the-mill managers.

As leaders, effective communication requires that we listen well to understand the true views and opinions of our team, our customers, and other stakeholders.

Four keys to such effective communication include:

Create the Environment for Honest Communication

  • We need to get out into the home environment of the other person or to a neutral place.  When we sit behind our desks in our offices, we intimidate most people, making them feel uncomfortable about giving an honest answer.  Instead, we need to get out into the field or to the customer’s place of business and interact with our team and our customers.  For a neutral location, taking the other person to lunch can be an effective way to get their honest views.
  • Whenever possible, we need to allow the other person time to think about what they will be saying. We can do this by scheduling a meeting and sending out an agenda or list of questions ahead of time.  This gives the other person the time to think through an answer to our questions and is preferable to hearing impromptu, off the cuff answers that may not be particularly well thought out.
  • We need to let the other person speak first. As leaders, we are in a position of power (often as the other person’s boss).  Thus, as soon as we give our opinions, the other person will tend to agree with what we say or frame their answer in such a way so as to not contradict what we have just said.


Give 100% Attention

We need to give 100% attention to the other person when listening in order to ensure that we understand what they say and to guarantee that the other person feels that they are being heard.

  • We need to physically force ourselves not to be distracted. We should move away from the desk and keyboard, put down the smart phone, remove any distractions, look in the person’s eyes and listen.
  • To ensure 100% attention, we should think about listening with our eyes. This ensures that we are paying attention not only to the words the other person is saying, but also to their tone of voice and body language.  The famous “rule” that 93% of communication is non-verbal has been debunked.  However, the non-verbal aspects of communication (tone of voice, inflection, body language) will still convey emotions, feelings, intentions and motivations that are vital in truly understanding the other person and what they are saying.


Listen to the Meaning Behind the Words

First, we need to have an open mind to really listen to and understand the other person.  We cannot immediately reject and throw out ideas we disagree with (disconfirmation bias) or, equally as dangerous, immediately accept those ideas that agree with our views (confirmation bias).

Instead, we need to listen to and interpret the meaning behind the words. Most of us make the assumption (which is usually the case) that people are telling us the truth. But, they are always telling us “their truth” that puts them and their action in the best possible light.  We must first respect that it is their truth; that it is what they believe.  However, we must think about and reflect on their point of view and why they are saying what they are saying.

For us, as leaders, trying to ‘figure out what the other person wants to get by saying something’ is sage advice.


Ensure that Everyone Is Understood and Truly Understands

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”  Ralph Nichols


When listening, we should pause before replying to ensure that we understand everything that was said and that the other person realizes that we have listened to what was said.  When we immediately respond to the other person, it is perceived that we did not really listen and just spent the time preparing our rebuttal.  If we need a little trick to ensure that we are perceived as listening, we can try counting to three (in our minds) before responding.

We should then confirm our understanding of what they said.  This is best done through a recap of what the other person has said.  For a deeper discussion on recap, please see my blog: Recap – One Key to Help Move Your Company Forward.

Finally, we need to make sure that we are understood.  If we simply ask whether they understood us, the other person or group of people (in a large meeting) will inevitably respond “Yes.”  We need to get beyond this yes, and probe with questions or by asking for a recap of what we said.  Only then will we truly verify that we were both listened to and understood.


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
This entry was posted in Communication, Leadership, Team / People and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.