We all do it: Sitting there, nodding our heads, still making eye contact, but waiting for the person we're having a conversation with to finish their sentence so we can talk. As soon as they finish, we jump in with our counterpoints — which now may not even be in direct response to what they just said.
Sound familiar? Of course, it does. And at this point, we probably don't even realize how much we aren't listening. While this can create problems for any offender, it becomes particularly troublesome for leaders. Why? If you're not actually listening to your customers, partners, or staff, you're missing an awful lot of important information — information that could even make or break your company.
Or, to put it bluntly, as leadership advisor and author Mike Myatt did:
Ouch. So how do you become a better listener? Here are a few key steps on the path to expert-level listening.
1. Take a Look at Yourself
It's hard to be self-aware, but it can be one of the most helpful things you accomplish. So, ask yourself: What am I truly like during a conversation? Do I constantly wait for my turn to talk? Do I do most of the talking? Do I ever ask questions? Knowing your weaknesses is the first step toward improving them. Once you've identified your trouble spots, practice working on them during all of your conversations — be it personal or business. Play whack-a-mole with your conversational pitfalls one at a time until they're all smashed.
2. Eliminate Pesky Distractions
Sometimes multitasking is overrated. This is especially true when you should be having a meaningful conversation, but you're actually sitting there checking email or scrolling through texts. We see you. It should sound obvious, but you can't truly listen to someone and peruse Instagram at the same time. So close that laptop, pry your phone from your hand, ignore your vibrating smartwatch and be present.
3. Really Get to Know People
If social media is any indication, we know all too well that people love to talk about themselves. But this can be used to your advantage in conversation, so lean into that tendency. To paraphrase Dale Carnegie from his bestselling business book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, when you encourage your conversation partner to talk about themselves, they wind up feeling more fondly toward you than they would if you'd dominated the interaction. Aside from being liked more, getting to know your client or employee better will only help build a more solid — and balanced – relationship.
4. Ask Questions
What better way to get to know someone than to ask questions? This will also help you fully understand what they're saying (and, what they're not saying). But make sure to ask meaningful questions — not just questions for question's sake. Ask them to clarify. Ask them to expand. And then repeat back what you heard (yes, just like in therapy) to make sure you're understanding fully. This will help you absorb what they're saying and show that you're hearing them (and not just listening).
5. Note Their Body Language
Non-verbal cues can tell a story if you know how to look. Pay attention to things like gestures, eye contact, posture, tone of voice, and body movements. Are they looking down? Standing close to you? Using their hands a lot? These things can convey a world of different things, including if they're comfortable with you, nervous or just bored. So as you listen, make sure to observe as well and respond to both what's coming out of their mouth as well as what they're doing with their body.
Now get out there and start practicing your listening skills in every interaction you have. I bet you'll start to see your relationships deepen with your staff and customers, which can lead to keen insights about your business (and, bonus: your relationships with friends and family will probably improve as well).