The Number One Communication Skill for Leaders (It's Not What You Think)

The Number One Communication Skill for Leaders (It's Not What You Think)

The Number One Communication Skill for Leaders (It's Not What You Think)

If you’ve been following me for a while, you already know I’m a huge advocate of simple (but not necessarily easy) approaches to … pretty much everything. So this week, I’m sharing with you the one thing that you can start doing TODAY that will improve your effectiveness as a leader:

Listen. Listen more, and listen better.

When we talk about communication, especially about a senior executive’s responsibility for communicating, what do you think about first? If you’re like most execs, you likely think about: what info do I/we need to share, who do I/we need to tell, and what media is best for reaching them. But this is only half of the equation.

Communication is both sending and receiving messages; it's a two-way exchange. Message sent, message received, questions asked, reactions/thoughts shared and responded to, and (often) next actions clarified.

Listening isn’t just nodding your head, and "mmhmm-ing" to demonstrate active listening. And it’s definitely NOT nodding while thinking about your response, or judging what they are saying as wrong or incomplete. You can nod and affirm, reflect back on what you’re hearing, and all the other "active listening" tricks you learned in management training. But do more than that.

Why You Should Listen More and Listen Better, Starting Today

Listening is one of the most critical leadership skills, and one of the least practiced. One challenge for many leaders is that they drive for efficiency, and listening doesn't always feel efficient. Don’t be fooled. Taking the time to relax, center yourself and listen well can help you achieve several important goals for any leader:

  • Listening well demonstrates both respect and concern for the other person
  • Listening fully signals that the other person is important to you and their thoughts have value for the organization
  • Listening with curiosity can help you learn much useful information you won’t otherwise get
  • Listening patiently, especially to people who think differently than you do, demonstrates your genuine appreciation of differences
  • Most important of all, listening carefully (and without immediate criticism) will build trust in your relationships -- and if you’re consistent that trust will spread through your organization.

Convinced of the benefits of better listening? Here’s how you can start today:

5 Tips to Immediately Improve Your Listening

1. Listen With Your Whole Body

Besides your two ears, you have other information receptors. Use the rest of your senses, too. Hear their tone of voice, not just their words. See their facial expressions and body language. Notice what isn’t said, as well as what is. Observe their emotions (but don't assume you're right). Note your own reactions (but don’t let them interfere with your listening).

2. Don't Interrupt

Let them finish their thoughts. Count to 5 before responding; people may say more when you leave space. This isn’t my greatest strength, so do better than I do. My family interrupted as a sign of active engagement, but I’ve learned that’s not how most people (including my daughter!) experience interruptions.

3. Exercise Curiosity

Ask questions. Open-ended ones are best, like "What information helped you come to that conclusion?" or "What was that like for you?" Avoid questions that will provoke defensiveness like "What were you thinking?!?" Notice the emotions you’re feeling, but set them aside until you understand fully.

4. Focus on What They're Saying (Not on Preparing Your Reply)

Set as your goal to fully understand their perspective, their experience, and their way of thinking. You will learn more about what motivates them, what they care about, how they process information and make decisions, and what kinds of further development they might need. If you’re thinking about what you’ll say next, you’re not actually listening.

5. Defer Judgment and Advice-giving

As leaders, we often feel we need to give an answer immediately. We’re prone to driving to action, and think it’s our job to provide solutions. But hold back. Wait until they ask you for your advice or opinion. Instead, ask how you can be most helpful.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman said that great listening plays "the same role for another person that a trampoline does for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification". Listening better will help you build stronger relationships, gain a greater understanding of what’s happening in your organization, learn more about your team members (and how to motivate and develop them), and help you take others’ perspectives into account when you are setting priorities and guiding your company forward.

Have you had a conversation lately that didn’t go as well as you wanted?