By Don Rapley Share: LinkedIn Twitter Published on March 20, 2016

Leaders need to have many qualities to be successful, but I think being a good listener comes near the top of the list.

Listening can appear to be quite a passive and ineffective activity, so why is good listening so important for leaders?

Ram Charan noted in his 2013 HBR article “The Discipline of Listening” that GE now places “listening” among the most desirable traits in potential leaders and that Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt has said that “humble listening” is among the top four characteristics he wants in his leaders.

If that resonates with you, how does it stack up against your own experience of leadership and all your previous bosses?

Who is your favourite Boss?

Think about your response when you ask yourself who is your favourite boss in your career to date? Who is the person that you would willingly go back and work for because the experience was positive?

The response to this question is remarkably consistent across leadership development groups in countries and cultures I know: favorite bosses are invariably the ones who listened to you...the ones who trusted you, gave you the autonomy to grow and gave you constructive feedback.

They weren't soft touches, indeed they could be demanding, but they were fair and consistent with everyone and wanted you to develop. People learned a lot and grew as a result of working with them.

That’s why people like to work for bosses that listen.

The Power of Listening

This tells us a lot about the power of listening. Good listening is neutral and non judgmental. It builds connections and creates trustful relationships… and that leads to engaged and motivated teams. Good listening also means that leaders can truly understand the thoughts and ideas of their colleagues and their teams.

Something magical happens when you let someone talk and you are really listening to what they are saying. Good listening tells the person that you are interested and that you take them seriously. It encourages them to explore and helps both of you get new perspectives on the issue you are talking about.

When you are able to mix listening and accurately reformulating what you are hearing, you create a level of empathy that helps your conversations move to new levels of mutual understanding.

So if good listening is a must-have leadership skill, how can you improve your listening skills to build more trustful relationships and generate higher levels of engagement?

If this was as easy as riding a bike, everyone would be great listeners, all leaders would be everyone’s favorite boss and have engaged and motivated teams.

But it isn't that easy. There are so many distractions that prevent us from really listening, but I think there are 3 things you can focus on that could help you keep on track:

1/ Be present in the conversation.

Be present and totally focused...

This is tough to do, but it’s an essential part of good listening. If you are distracted or doing something else, this sends the wrong signals and just doesn’t work!

You know how irritating it is when someone is not listening. You can spot it within a few moments of the start of a conversation, whether it is face to face or on the phone. I often hear that people feel ignored, disrespected and feel like giving up when this happens. Sometimes people end up by thinking it must be them ... maybe they are just boring or have failed to catch the other person's attention. Sound familiar?

If a person is habitually a poor listener, their relationships lose energy, trust dissipates and they drift apart from people over time.

It comes down to wanting to be there… have to be sure you are available to listen, even 5 minutes of your undivided attention is way better than 10 minutes of non listening. Be open to understand what the other person has to say, even if you don’t agree with them.

Nothing less than 100% presence and focus will do.

2/ Let the other person talk.

Allow them to explore their thoughts...

Letting people talk is a core coaching skill that helps people to get clarity on whatever situation you are discussing. Your listening attitude will help them to feel comfortable to tell you what's on their mind and often new perspectives and insights emerge when you do this.

Just by listening and letting them talk...

Don’t interrupt, because that interferes with the person’s thought process. Interrupting directs the conversation the way you want it, not necessarily the way it should go.

Really listen to what they are saying and feeling, as this will open up new information for you to build on.

3/ Reformulate and dig deeper

Check out your understanding from time to time...

Reformulation doesn’t have to be mechanical. It can be as simple as “can I just check what I have understood….” or “what you are saying is that…” or "you sound frustrated by that..."

If you make it part of the of the natural flow of your conversation, it tells the other person you are really listening and opens up the dialogue.

When you reformulate accurately, it gives new energy to the conversation and the alignment brings the discussion to a new level. Its a great feeling when someone accurately summarizes in their words what you really meant.

If you get your reformulation wrong, its not a problem. A mismatch in understanding is often helpful to both of you, because sometimes things are said in a conversation that aren't that clear. Probing this in a constructive way shows that you have an open mind and allows you to backtrack, clarify what you are hearing and then move on.

Its really powerful!

And lastly, good questioning goes hand in hand with good listening. Use open, neutral questions that get people talking, but avoid the temptation load your questions with inferences or close down the conversation with yes or no answers.

So good listening is a key to great leadership, but it needs focus and practice to improve, just like any other skill.

The payback comes when you move to a new level of understanding with your teams and stakeholders that builds trustful relationships, high engagement and great performance.