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Leaders, are you really listening to your team members?

Remember as a child learning “Stop, Drop and Roll”? This is how to react if there’s a fire. What do you do when one of your team members approaches you to talk? Do you “Stop, Focus and Listen”? And, I mean active listening – being present, attentive, engaged, open-minded and non-judgmental?

A CEO I coach was concerned about the feedback he received in a recent employee engagement survey. There were several negative comments about his communications skills. He was surprised because he has always encouraged people to talk openly with him.

What he discovered is that they didn’t believe he was actively listening to them. Some of the comments were: ‘You’re always distracted and multi-tasking when I try to speak to you,’ ‘You constantly look at your phone while I’m speaking,’ ‘You interrupt me before I’m finished sharing my idea, so you obviously don’t care what I have to say.’ This was a huge wake-up call. He’s now working on his active listening skills. He gives his full attention, asks open-ended questions, shows emotion to what he’s hearing and periodically clarifies to ensure he’s clearly understanding the message.

The best leaders know that leading with active listening is a crucial skill and the foundation for building relationships with their team. It shows empathy and caring, but when you’re not actively listening, what message does it send? It tells your team members, “You aren’t important to me.”

Here are 5 immediate actions you can take to tune-up your active listening skill:

  1. Increase your listening-to-speaking ratio. What’s yours? Be honest with yourself. Are you interrupting the person before they’re even done talking because you’ve already formulated your reply? Are you finishing their sentence for them? 70% listening to 30% speaking?
  2. Do not listen autobiographically! In Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he defines this as the listener who hijacks the  conversation to tell their own story. Yes, it might be a shared experience, but this is not about YOU. Focus on them and listen to truly understand what they’re saying. Once I learned there was a name for this, I was shocked at how many people are guilty of listening autobiographically.
  3. Listen with your head and your heart. Showing empathy as a leader is a sign of strength. When team members really know that they’re being heard, they are more apt to provide honest feedback. It reinforces the culture of trust within your company, and they will feel valued as an individual.
  4. Open your mind, not just your ears. Listening without judgment is crucial for leaders. You will not grow complacent and embracing new ideas shows you are a learner and adaptable to change. The Dalai Lama said it so clearly, “When you speak, you repeat what you know. When you listen, you learn something new.”
  5. Stay in the moment. Always show respect, be present and give your undivided attention. You can do this by minimizing distractions (cell phone, shutting down email on your computer), keeping focused eye contact and summarizing what they’ve told you. For example, “I understand your frustration, and I’ll get back to you by tomorrow with several options on how to correct the situation”.

Active Listening takes practice, but the payoff is huge because your team members will recognize it immediately. “Stop Focus Listen!”

Jill Belconis is a strategic business coach and RealTrends contributor.

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