Six Ways to Develop Great Listening Skills

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As communicators, you would think good listening skills come naturally to us, just like breathing or swallowing. But just because we were born with two ears doesn’t mean we listen well to others.

Research shows that people spend 53 percent of their daily communications activities on listening compared to 17 percent for reading, 16 percent for speaking and 14 percent for writing. Yet the average listener retains only half of the information they heard immediately after hearing it, and only one-fourth of the information after 48 hours. We must all learn to listen, not out of a need to memorize, but to comprehend. That takes practice and patience.

Most people assume that good listening involves three things:

* Not talking while the other person is speaking
* Using facial expressions and verbal sounds (Hmmm-hmmm) to let others know you’re listening
* Repeating back what you’ve just heard from the speaker

This three-pronged approach called active listening has been taught for decades. But good listening is more than this, say leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in Harvard Business Review.

We’re not sponges soaking up every concept, Zenger and Folkman say. Rather good listening works like a trampoline where there’s a bounce back effect. Speakers and listeners bounce ideas off one another to amplify, energize and clarify thinking.

Zenger and Folkman say great listeners do the following:

* Ask questions to gain better insight. Sitting in silence with an occasional nod of the head does nothing to confirm to the speaker that you understand what was said. Asking questions signals to the speaker that you desire to learn more.

* Make the speaker feel supported. Great listeners make interactions a positive experience for the other party, which doesn’t happen if a listener is passive, or worse, critical. This supportive environment is characterized by creating a safe environment in which issues and differences of opinion can be discussed openly and freely.

* Create a cooperative environment for conversation. Feedback flows freely in all directions. Neither party gets defensive about comments. By comparison, poor listeners are perceived as competitive; they listen only to identify errors in judgment, reasoning or logic.

* Make suggestions and provide feedback. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but they do so with the intent to help the other party, not hurt them or win an argument.

So how do good communicators develop better listening skills? Here are a few tips from Fast Company.

1. Be present. You can be sitting in the first row staring up at the speaker, but your mind can be a million miles away writing your marketing plan in your head. Though your body is in place, your attention is not. Learn to be present in the moment. Give the speaker your undivided attention, no matter how boring their presentation may be. Avoid distractions – put away the phone, put down your pen, shut off the laptop. If you notice your mind wandering, bring it back to the present.

If that doesn’t work, imagine if the roles were reversed. If you were speaking, wouldn’t you want people to give their undivided attention to you? Of course, you would. With that in mind, be fully present wherever you are.

2. Listen to learn. Be curious. Communicators by nature are curious people, so this should not be an issue. Nevertheless, listen to gain better understanding. Don’t just listen out of politeness or because you’re supposed to. Listening out of politeness doesn’t help you gain a better understanding of the other party’s meaning.

3. Set aside your personal agenda. We each have our reasons for participating in the conversation or want to achieve something from it. Maybe it’s to ask for their help on a project or persuade a different outcome on a decision. Whatever it is, that’s your own personal agenda. “When you think of your own agenda, you shut off the opportunity to truly listen and learn something from the other person,” says Hal Gregerson of MIT Leadership Center, interviewed for the Fast Company story. “It’s important to be open to new information that you’re not looking for but need to hear.”

4. Ask questions. Listening well and asking questions shows a willingness on your part to being proven wrong, whether it’s misinformation or an assumption about something. Asking questions shows your interest in the speaker and what they have to say. It also creates a safe space to have an open discussion. Asking questions helps you learn more from the speaker and shows you are engaged in the conversation.

5. Wait to respond. Like waiting for a stoplight to change from red to green, great listeners need to sense when it’s a good time to respond and when they need to hold their tongue. One of the most difficult aspects of listening effectively is waiting for that natural pause at the end of the sentence where listeners can ask questions or offer a rebuttal. Patience is key, and poor listeners aren’t very patient. When you begin to form a reply before the speaker has finished speaking, you communicate to others that your opinion is more important than theirs. Great listeners suspend their judgment and wait for the right moment to engage in conversation.

6. Repeat back what you heard. Not sure if what you heard was accurate? Need clarification? Repeat the speaker’s words. For example, “Let me get this straight. You believe all education should be free to students? Why?” Repeating back is a technique that’s been around for decades. Management experts says it’s a proven technique that defuses arguments because it slows down the pace of conversation. Repeating back encourages further discussion and gives speakers and listeners a chance to clarify and gain better understanding.

Great listeners are not born. But with proper training, practice and patience, good communicators can become great listeners.

How Introverts Can Become Better Leaders

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Who says you have to be an extrovert to be a good leader?  Some of the finest political leaders and corporate CEOs are renowned introverts, including Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, to name a few.

Just because you consider yourself an introvert doesn’t mean you can’t aspire to be a good leader. And in fact, you don’t need to be the CEO of your company, or even a manager, to be a good leader. A good leader makes solid decisions using the talents and ideas of those around them. You can find good leaders at any level of business, even among administrative employees. The only difference is the job title, and really, what’s in a job title anyway these days?

But back to my point. You can find people with good leadership ability at any level in the organization, and they aren’t necessarily the most outgoing, extroverted personalities on the team. Being introverted is not the same as being shy or timid, although many of them are. Introvertism, as I call it, is a way of interacting with the world. For example, introverts may socialize as often as an extrovert, but introverts tend to meet fewer people and prefer to have more meaningful conversations with them, while extroverts tend to spread their net far and wide. After an intense meeting or attending a networking event, introverts are more likely to “chill out” in a quiet corner to regroup and gather their thoughts, while extroverts tend to thrive in social settings. Introverts are more likely to patiently listen to multiple opinions and seek input from different parties before making a decision, while extroverts may find it easier to block out outside opinions and simply move forward on their decisions. There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert; it’s just a different way of interacting with the world around them.

Unfortunately, it is the more outgoing, extroverted personalities that seem to grab the promotions and higher-level visible positions, leaving behind equally qualified introverts behind. But introverts can still achieve success in the business world; it just takes a bit of courage and common sense. So whether you want to lead an organization or simply develop better leadership skills in your current role, here are six tips for becoming a better leader.

1. Know your strengths — and embrace them. Do you know what your best skills are? Why do people enjoy working with you? What would they say your strengths are? Once you understand what your best assets are, play them up. For example, if one of your strengths is being a good listener – and many introverts are good listeners – use that skill to build empathy in business relationships.  If you are naturally curious about new people and new ideas, embrace that curiosity by asking lots of questions and showing sincere interest in the people you work with and the ideas you hear. That curiosity can lead to the development of innovative products or services that can be prosperous for your business.

2. Volunteer on team projects. Show off your skills or gain new ones by volunteering to be part of a team project. When you join a team or committee, you show you are willing to take on additional responsibilities. Higher ups will appreciate your initiative and willingness to share the workload. If you succeed in the task you volunteered for, colleagues may keep you in mind when they need someone for a specific task.

3. Honor your commitments. Nothing says you take responsibility seriously than keeping your word. If you say you’ll get the report done by Monday morning, do so. If you promise to make follow up phone calls to your best customers, do that. Every task you can do on time and without complaint leaves a positive impression and adds to your credibility. Honoring your commitments and following through on tasks is another way to show your leadership.

4. Lead by example. You’ve heard the old saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” That is true in the business world as well as in your personal life. Sometimes it’s best to let your actions speak for themselves. Good leaders don’t have to boast about their activities; they let their actions speak for themselves. Sometimes the best leaders are the quiet ones; they don’t necessarily have to act as a cheerleader. They demonstrate their leadership by simply going about their business quietly and unobtrusively and with little fanfare or drama.

5. Find someone to be your champion. Quiet introverted types aren’t comfortable blowing their own horn. Find someone to do it for you. Sometimes you need someone who knows you well, has worked with you previously, and knows what you are capable of; they are the best people to speak on your behalf. Good leaders surround themselves with people who are willing to champion their cause. Look around your office or among your peers. Is there one, two or three people you can identify who can be your champion? When you need that extra support or buddy to help you in a pinch, for a project or promote your cause, call on them to do some of your dirty work. That’s called having a strong support system.

6. Network for meaningful connections. Introverts tend to prefer small groups or one-on-one encounters with people, so attending conferences can be a bit intimidating. Look around the meeting room. Identify one or two people who may be there by themselves and approach them and introduce yourself. They may be just as intimidated by the prospect of networking as you are! Making small talk isn’t always easy for introverts but it is a necessary part of building relationships. You never know if that initial conversation can potentially open doors to more meaningful and profitable business partnerships.

The path to a more visible, leadership role can sometimes be a bit rocky for introverted types. But with a little courage and patience, you can build better leadership skills and more self-confidence to be the leader you believe you can be.