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How to Become a Better Listener

The cacophony of opinions screamed into the world on social media, in meetings, at conferences, and in classrooms provides ample evidence that it is a human need to be heard. But with all this yelling going on, who is listening? Great leaders have learned to listen carefully to feedback from their staff, their customers, their vendors, and any other stakeholders that can impact the direction of their firm. By being a great listener, you could become one of those great leaders. Stephen R. Covey suggested we “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Unfortunately, listening has become an endangered art, but you can differentiate yourself as a leader by reviving the art of listening in your management practice. While it takes focus, the plan itself is relatively simple.

Charles Duhigg’s “Habit Loop” is a model that teaches us how to form new habits. It starts with a cue that leads to a routine and then a reward for executing that routine. Think Pavlov’s dogs – the reward will cause us to execute the routine again next time the cue is present. With listening, there is a cue that presents itself many times each day and the routine we’re advocating starts with just two words, “wait, what?”. The reward for this routine is so great that if you can stick with it, it will become habit. Once you begin to change your speech patterns, your success at both listening and helping those around you will quickly reinforce the new behaviors and you’ll be a listening impresario within the month.

The plan involves asking just five questions that will help you listen and lead better.

When someone expresses an opinion (the cue), try taking Dean James Ryan’s advice. The Harvard Graduate School of Education professor outlined “Five Essential Questions in Life” that will set you up for listening success. Every time someone expresses an opinion, instead of replying with your own, jump to your first question. If you can remember to do that, the rest of the listening dominos should fall into place.

  1. Wait, what? This is the gateway question. When someone proposes an idea a typical reaction these days is to immediately offer your own opinion on their idea. We all like to be heard. Instead, seek clarity. “Wait, what?” offers time for the person to further expand on their idea and offers you a chance to actually hear them.
  2. I wonder why/if? Once they’ve finished their clarification, instead of disagreeing, softly propose another perspective. Remembering to ask this question breeds curiosity in both conversationalists.
  3. Couldn’t we at least…? People often present choices as either/or scenarios. This question instead opens the possibility of a range of options that neither person may have considered. When views are opposing, this question allows people to find common ground and start to develop solutions.
  4. How can I help? By asking this question (instead of telling them how you can help), you are recognizing the other person’s expertise in their perspective.
  5. What truly matters? Asking this gets to the highest priority at hand. While sometimes a laundry list of problems or solutions can be the result of asking the first four questions, this final question ensures everyone agrees which is the most important.

Great leaders are great because they bring their team along to the solution instead of just telling them what to do. To be outstanding in a field, whether as a listener or a leader, requires commitment and practice. But with so much noise in the world today, cultivating your listening skills seems one of the quicker paths to leadership excellence.

Note: Dean Ryan offers his advice in this video. If you have 6:50 minutes to invest I highly recommend you check it out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bW0NguMGIbE . And if you enjoyed this article, don’t be selfish! Please share it with your networks.

Tara Landes