Listening skills for leaders start with establishing trust

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Renee Pollak

We have been communicating all our lives. So, why do we need to talk about special communication skills for leaders? Do you remember the expression, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression”? Since first impressions are exercised within the first seven seconds after someone meets you, it is critical that leaders create an image immediately as outstanding communicators.

The way we communicate in everyday life is different than the way we communicate as leaders , thus creating the following paradox:

In everyday situations people:
Talk excessively;
Interrupt;
Daydream;
Prejudge People;
Prejudge Subject Matter;
and  Take sides

Leaders must:
Listen more;
Listen more;
Listen more;
Remain unbiased;
and Remain impartial

There are many ways of establishing trust. Here are just a few communication skills to help you. Remember — you are not born with communication skills; they have to be learned.

  1. Eye contact
  2. Positive attitudes
  3. The art of questioning
  4. Body language
  5. The art of listening (the hardest communication skill to learn)

Let us address the art of listening. Students who take our training always tell us they wish they had better listening skills. How do you rate as a listener? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I allow the speaker to express his or her complete thought without interrupting?
  2. Do I listen between the lines, especially when conversing with individuals who frequently use hidden agendas?
  3. Do I actively try to develop retention ability to remember important facts?
  4. Do I write down the most important facts?
  5. Do I read essential details back to the speaker before the conversation ends to insure correct understanding?
  6. Do I refrain from turning off the speaker because the content is dull and boring, or because I do not like the speaker?
  7. Do I avoid becoming hostile or excited when a person’s view differs from my own?
  8. Do I ignore distractions when listening?
  9. Do I express genuine interest in the conversations?
  10. Since I have two ears and one mouth, do I listen twice as much as I speak?

Studies have demonstrated that there are five levels of listening. Which level are you?

  1. Ignoring: Simply not paying attention. Makes no effort to hear what is being said. You are too busy preparing what you will say while the other person is speaking.
  2. Pretending: Tuning out, by saying things such as uh-huh, right, mmhmm. Hears the sounds and words, but doesn’t really listen. Causes misunderstanding because the speaker may think you are listening and understanding.
  3. Selective listening: Paying attention to only certain parts of the conversation. Makes an effort to understand speakers’ intent or feelings. Tends to be a logical listener; more concerned about content than feelings. Most dangerous because opinions may be formed before message is completed. May miss the most important part of the message when you are on a drift.
  4. Attentive listening: Paying full attention to words and focusing energy on messages. Attempts to see things from speakers’ point of view. Listens to not only what and how something is said , but also perceptive to what is not being said. All components of listening are at work: being open-minded, responsive, attentive, sensitive and non-judgmental. Many people stop here. This is good, but not enough for leaders.
  5. Empathetic listening: Listening with intent to understand; listening with ears, eyes and heart. Spiritual feeling of what the other person is feeling. Listening to understand; not offering opinions. Walking in the other person’s shoes.

Dean Rusk once said, “One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears-by listening to them.” Here are a few tips to think about when preparing to enter a conference:

Listening Tips

  1. Honestly interact with the speaker during his/her speaking time.
  2. Suspend snap judgments about the message or the speaker.
  3. Resist distraction: focus on the speaker.
  4. Listen to the whole comment, and then pause for two seconds before responding to show that your reply is based on the speaker’s theme.
  5. Do not interrupt-often, you know precisely where the comment is going-resist the temptation to jump with your idea.
  6. Paraphrase: try to repeat the essence of the idea to make sure the speaker knows you understand the message.
  7. Watch for non-verbal cues such as irritability, excitement, boredom in the voice, shyness, etc. Non-verbal cues often convey the message much more dramatically than mere words.
  8. If in doubt, do not hesitate to ask the speaker to repeat. That’s better than assuming you’ll get it later or that the comments don’t really matter anyway.
  9. Show continued interest in the speaker. If you appear bored or distracted, the speaker could become embarrassed, angry or simply give up.
  10. Really look at the speaker. Maintain solid eye contact to show you are really listening.

Note: Most people speak at the rate of about 125 to 150 words a minute. Most listeners think at the rate of about 400 to 500 words per minute. As you can see, there is enough gap time to become distracted.

Remember, there is power in effective communication. The purpose of this article is to share our deep conviction that skillful communication is a key element in your personal success as a leader. You can handle the most difficult situations with confidence when you understand the communication process. Good luck.

Bruce A. Blitman is an attorney and Florida Supreme Court Certified Circuit Civil, Family and County Court Mediator who practices near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Since 1989, he has mediated thousands of disputes. He can be reached at (954) 437-3446 and [email protected]

Renee Pollak, MA, CCC, SLP, a communication specialist, researcher and consultant to businesses, contributed to this article.