We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.  ~  Epictetus

Humans are social creatures and as such, we often seek the companionship of close relationships and intimacy – that experience of being in the presence of another and feeling understood, honored and respected.  Think about the times you’ve parted company with a friend and thought “she really gets me” or “he totally understood where I was coming from”.  Experiences such as these elicit feelings of calmness and connectedness; they are energy raising – or what I refer to as “renewal events”.  In short, being in the company of a great listener helps to charge our batteries.

Great leaders listen.  Bill Clinton and Mark Zuckerberg  are two great examples.  Both leaders are known to be very intent and focused on what the other person says and understanding how they think and what they care about.  They connect with people.  Think about this in terms of leadership.  Do you want to hang around people that clobber you over the head with their ideas, opinions and judgements?  Those that constantly interrupt you or hijack your thought processes?  Or, do you want to be in the presence of those that support you and, even though they may have a different opinion, understand where you’re coming from?  A vital part of enhancing your leadership abilities is to take stock of where your listening skills are today and then consciously work to improve them.  For instance, think about your conversations over the past week and then answer “frequently”, “occasionally” or “never” to the following questions.

  1. How often was I thinking about what I was going to say while another was speaking?
  2. How often did I interrupt someone else while they were talking?
  3. I was ______________ uncomfortable with silence.
  4. I ______________ tried to solve another’s issue.
  5. How often was I thinking about how what someone else was saying related to my own life or my own experiences?

If you answered occasionally next to a number of statements, imagine a yellow blinking light alerting you to be cautious.  If you answered frequently next to a number of statements, imagine a red blinking light indicating that you have something to pay attention to.  By integrating the following tips into your conversations, you will become a better listener, connect with others at a higher level and improve your leadership qualities.

1.  Be Self-Aware:  The first step toward intentionally changing any behavior is to be honest with yourself.  If you don’t realize you have a problem, you won’t see the opportunity to grow and improve.

2.  Commit:  Commit to change.  For instance, maybe you are prone to the pitfall of interrupting others.  Realizing this and and then committing to improvement is the foundation for your success.

3.  Turn Attention Outward:  The biggest difference in being a great listener and not being one is where your attention is focused.  Listening pitfalls such as jumping to conclusions before another is finished speaking and thinking about what you’re going to say next occur when our attention is focused inwardly – or on ourself – as opposed to having it focused outwardly – or on the person speaking.  Entering your conversations with an “other” focus  will help you avoid major pitfalls.

4.  Shut Off Internal Talk:  The parts of our brain that are responsible for thought formation and the parts that control our comprehension are mutually exclusive.  In other words, they biologically cannot function together – or, when one is activated the other is deactivated.  It’s part of our wiring.  This means that we cannot be outwardly focused if we’re formulating thoughts.  When you catch yourself thinking about what you’re going to say next, remind yourself to shut that off and mindfully listen to what another is saying.

5.  Be Comfortable With Silence:  This is probably the most popular reason I hear from people who find themselves victim to listening pitfalls…..I’m not comfortable with silence or I don’t know what to do in silence.  That’s okay and you’re not alone.  Try a simple reframe in that space of silence or discomfort.  Remind yourself that the other person is now formulating their thoughts because they just wholly listened to what you said.  Remember, they need time to compose their thoughts because that part of the brain was not activated when the comprehension was activated (when they were listening to you).  So, spend that moment of silence honoring that you were just listened to and be patient as they prepare their response.

In today’s fast-paced world communication is more important then ever, yet we seem to devote less and less time to really listening to one another. Genuine listening has become a rare gift – the gift of time. It helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy. At work, effective listening means fewer errors and less wasted time. Outside of work, it helps build meaningful and connected relationships.  It saves money and marriages while making us great leaders, great friends and great citizens.  When we genuinely connect with others we can better serve them and support their needs.