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The one leadership hack we've all been looking for is free

Imagine there was a technique you could learn and practice that would display respect for others, promote trust and contribute mightily to individual and group performance.

I suspect many would be willing to invest heavily in the workshops and books that teach this behavior with its almost magical outcomes. I know I would.

Fortunately, none of us has to dip into our training budgets or personal savings. And you don’t have to leave the home office or even read a book to gain the benefits from this ultimate leadership hack. The behavior with the almost magical relationship and performance outcomes is nothing more than listening. While a better term might be “fierce listening,” it’s something most of us play at, and many of us can stand to get significantly better at.

The human impact of fierce listening

I ran an informal poll on a webinar recently where almost 700 people signed up to learn more about listening, and I asked how people felt when they recognized the other party in their conversation wasn’t paying attention to them. The theme was evident with the most common answers being: upset, disappointed, angry, disrespected. You could almost feel the bitterness flow through the chat boxes.

We then flipped the question and asked the group how they felt when it was apparent the other party was fully invested in the conversation. The gray cloud of disrespect lifted, as words such as appreciated, valued, respected, happy, hopeful and many other synonyms flowed freely for a few moments.

The research backs our informal poll results, with findings suggesting the positive impact on individuals when they perceive they are listened to during a conversation. One author suggested that the feeling is practically indistinguishable from that feeling we get when we feel loved.

While love might not be on your mind, the concepts of respect, trust and performance should be, particularly now with the added complexity of low-signal, high-noise virtual communications. Fortunately, there’s little rocket science involved in developing as a fierce listener. There is, however, the need for discipline and deliberate practice.

8 steps to developing your fierce listening skills

Imagine you’ve decided to get your share of respect, trust, and performance that accrues from listening fiercely to others you encounter daily. How do you get started?

 

1. Commit: Internalize the need to strengthen your effectiveness as a listener

Focus on the benefits of effective listening and make a personal commitment to strengthening your behaviors and eliminating poor listening habits.

2.  Assess: Establish a baseline for your listening skills

Ask your boss, your team members and your peers how they perceive you as a listener. Since most people are uncomfortable telling the truth if negative, create a simple, anonymous survey. And, if feasible, design questions about your listening behaviors into an upcoming 360-degree review.

3. Recognize: Learn to identify your listening traps

Do you attempt to multitask? Do you interrupt people or complete their sentences for them? Or, do you slip into the mode of thinking of your response while the other party is still talking? All of these get in the way of genuinely listening to someone.

4. Frame: Set your days up for listening success

Starting today, kick off with a few quiet moments to review your commitment to developing as a fierce listener, identifying how you will do this. Single out the specific bad habits and bogeys to avoid. I’m a chronic drifter, often thinking of my answer while the other party is talking, so I have to remind my brain to shut-up and focus continually.

As you navigate through your workday, jot down a note or two on what worked and where you drifted or failed. Review the successes and failures at the end of the day and recommit to getting better tomorrow. Rinse and repeat.

Framing your day for success is a no-cost, low-time-investment technique to create a focus on meaningful behaviors.

5. Engage: Employ listening tactics in the moment

Develop and trigger your listening mode when someone approaches you. Create your internal message. Mine is: “It’s time to shift into listening mode. I will focus on this person, and I will work on seeing the situation from their perspective before sharing my thoughts.”

After my personal pep talk, I use several questions during the engagement to show commitment, auto-correct when I drift and confirm quality. These include:

  • Ask: “What is your goal for both of us in this conversation?”
  • Confirm: “Here’s what I heard. What else do you need me to know?”
  • Quality check: “Here’s what we agreed to achieve together. Have I missed anything?”

6. Strengthen: Train your brain

Create the discipline to let people share their thoughts and have specific reset processes for when you drift. Use:

  • The two-count pause: Seriously, wait until someone finishes their sentence and then count to two. Try this right after reading this article. It’s hard, but it works.
  • Reset when you drift: “This is important for both of us. Can you restate your last point, please?”
  • Reset when you interrupt: “I’m sorry. Please complete your thought. It’s important to me.”

7. Tune in: Look for weak or dissonant signals

If the body language suggests something is off or unspoken, you are probably right. Probe gently for clarity. One technique includes: “What else would you like me to take away from this conversation?”

8. Extend: Teach your groups fierce listening practices

I encourage functional and team leaders to call out fierce listening as essential and to bake the expectation into team or group values. The best leader-listeners I’ve worked around teach and model these behaviors and expect team members to follow suit. The results I’ve observed included improved team cohesion, strengthened problem-solving, better idea development, and a more enjoyable working environment. Not bad for something that is effectively free.

The bottom line for now

We spend a lot of time wondering and studying how we can strengthen as leaders, managers, and contributors. Workshops and books are great, but the most significant gains are well within your grasp at no cost other than a little time and a lot of deliberate effort. As an early career mentor once said to me, “You’ll go as far as you can communicate.” I agree, and my addition is: “Great communication starts with fierce listening.”

 

Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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