5 tactics to help you listen to your employees better

Great leaders are great listeners. Listening seems to be such a basic human skill. Shouldn’t we all do well when we enter the workforce? You might think so, but in many places and interactions the answer is no. In cross-industry engagement surveys, employees rank not feeling heard as one of the top reasons they drop out of engagement.

Here are proactive things you can do to cultivate the discipline of good listening.

1. Stay focused and present

First, make a commitment not to be 100% present, but to be 110% present when listening to someone because you get easily distracted. The 10 above 100% means you are practicing confidence, discipline and intention. Aside from that conscious commitment, one way is to set aside enough time for real conversations, especially when it’s important. In a group setting, never push the speaker. Let them finish their thought completely before moving on to the next person or giving your own answer.

Leadership guru Simon Sinek goes one step further and encourages leaders to “be the last to speak”. This sets the stage for everyone to be heard to receive all input from the group and models respectful listening. It’s also an advantage that you get the opinions of others before you give yours.

2. Ask lots of questions

Don’t be afraid to be curious. Think of listening as an opportunity to learn. Asking questions gives the speaker a chance to express themselves fully and should lead to better information and understanding. Asking questions will help you gain clarity and make sure you don’t walk away thinking you know what the other person meant when you really don’t.

The questions you might ask often come naturally from the conversation, but simple open-ended questions can also help. For example, you could ask, “Is there anything else I should know that I didn’t specifically ask you about?”

Although the answer to that is often no, I’ve heard some surprising things as a result of this question. Not only do the questions themselves provide information that can lead to better understanding, but the process of asking them helps you be more engaged.

Stefano Lucchini, President of the RFK Human Rights Foundation of Italy, advocates the practice of asking questions of oneself in addition to others. He explains: “Before I make decisions or speak about issues that concern me, I listen to others. Listening is central to compassion, since compassion involves rendering service to others by trying to understand. I anchor myself by thinking through a series of questions such as: What are you experiencing in your life now? This question helps me gather context. There are also, How might they deal with the problems we are talking about? This helps me to understand what they could contribute. Is it possible to do what we are discussing in a different way? That helps me to think outside the box.

“Importantly,” adds Lucchini, “all these questions enable me to show compassion, a sincere desire to understand how others think. I firmly believe that this leads to better decisions, better communication and better results.”

3. Listen with empathy

With empathy, you perceive information in a more subjective way through that person’s experience. Do this in addition to listening to the information more objectively. This is at the core of cultivating empathy in the listening process. The speaker will sense that you are both objective about the facts or data presented and subjective about their point of view. The combination of both perspectives rounds off the understanding you get at the end.

Empathy will always lead to a better understanding of the listener and make the speaker feel understood.

4. Pay attention to body language

Nonverbal analysis is more powerful than word analysis. Listening involves more than just spoken words. Never underestimate what is expressed through the body language that accompanies spoken words. Does the body support or contradict the spoken words? Does the speaker say yes while shaking their head? Are your arms crossed? Do they tap their feet impatiently, or do they lean forward with an open stance and make eye contact?

You can vastly improve your understanding of what is being said by observing a person’s non-verbal cues, their movements, and the way they (or don’t) look at you. This is a much greater level of involvement because you are now watching someone and listening to what they are saying.

5. Confirm what you heard

After completing points one through four, you still need to make sure you understand the speaker’s meaning and information correctly, that you and they share the same understanding. If they say, “No, you got it wrong,” ask more questions to clarify. If you don’t acknowledge this, you may be acting (and many executives do) based on incorrect assumptions. Repeat what you think you’ve heard often to confirm it. This is a basic communication technique that most of the time eliminates any possibility that you’re doing something wrong.

To say: “If I understand correctly . . .” also serves to reinforce the other person’s confidence in you as someone to speak to and be heard by properly, and that you value their contribution enough to get it right. And don’t be ashamed to admit you got it wrong. You may find that admitting that you missed the mark convinces the other person that you are actively listening.

Excerpt adapted from The Double Bottom Line: How Compassionate Leaders Captivate Hearts and Deliver ResultsFast Company Press, April 2022.

Donato Tramuto and Tami Booth Corwin are the authors of The Double Bottom Line: How Compassionate Leaders Captivate Hearts and Deliver Results (April 2022). Tramuto is a global health activist, former CEO of Tivity Health and founder of TramutoPorter Foundation. Booth Corwin is an experienced publishing and media executive recognized in The Wall Street Journal’s “50 Women to Watch” list for “a striking turnaround” in Rodale’s books department. 5 tactics to help you listen to your employees better


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