Hear this, businesspeople: Odds are you aren’t so good at listening.
This isn’t just conjecture by disgruntled employees. It’s a statement backed by research.
One study including hundreds of businesspeople found most of the participants only remembered half of what they heard immediately after a conversation. Many participants were fidgeting or not even paying attention. Fast forward to six months later, and their retention rates were down to a measly 25 percent. This proved true even for people who thought they were doing a good job of listening.
Why does this matter? Because active listening can powerfully influence the way a company operates. Here’s why managers should invest in becoming better listeners—and how to make it happen.
Why Listening Matters
Listening might sound like a “soft skill” that matters less than, say, the ability to craft a marketing plan or spot investments that will pay off. In truth, listening is an important business strategy in its own right.
Listening to your employees allows you to identify potential issues before they become massive errors. It helps you tap into the team’s energy and notice when employees need a morale boost, professional development, or interpersonal interventions. When you’re able to course correct before things take a turn for the worse, you ensure stable levels of productivity.
A habit of listening well also communicates to your team that you care about their input. When staff feel appreciated, they’re more likely to respect your opinion. This gives you greater influence as a manager and reduces employee turnover rates.
These are just a few of the ways in which listening to your team can improve your workplace and your company’s bottom line. The benefits of listening also extend to your relationships with clients, vendors, investors, and so on. In short? Virtually every aspect of your business will benefit from your efforts to become a better listener.
How to Listen Better
Becoming a better listener takes work, but it can be learned. Start by implementing the following strategies.
The first step in listening well is to completely engage in the conversation. Put down your phone, turn away from your computer screen, and clear your mind of other thoughts so you can listen mindfully to whomever is talking to you. If it’s not a good time to talk, ask the person if you can meet at a designated time when you’ll have fewer distractions.
Consider what isn’t being said.
Body language is a major part of communication, so active listening requires paying attention to what you and the speaker are “saying” without actually saying it. Pay attention to the speaker’s posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, and so on to identify clues into how they’re feeling. This will allow you to make the conversation more constructive. If the speaker appears tense, for example, you might adopt a calm tone to help them feel more comfortable.
When it comes to your own body language, make sure you’re facing the speaker, maintaining eye contact, nodding occasionally to affirm what they’re saying, and communicating openness to the conversation by leaning in and not crossing your arms.
Paraphrase what you hear.
Repeating back what you’re gleaning from the conversation allows you and the speaker to confirm you’re on the same page. When the other person finishes their thought, paraphrase what you heard to demonstrate you’ve been paying attention and to ensure there are no misunderstandings.
Ask clarifying questions.
If you’re not totally understanding what the speaker is saying, that’s okay. Instead of pretending you get it, ask follow-up questions to better understand what they’re trying to convey. This will communicate that you’re invested in hearing the other person, increase the depth of your understanding, and ensure time isn’t lost to misunderstandings.
Think before you speak.
When it’s your turn to respond, take the time to do so in a considered way. It’s okay to say “Let me think about that for a few moments” so you can collect your thoughts. Make sure you aren’t responding in a way that is reactive, dismissive, or otherwise disrespectful of the speaker. Instead, validate and thoughtfully respond to each of the speaker’s main points and requests. If you can’t provide an answer in the moment, let the other person know you’re invested in a solution and schedule a time to follow-up.
Eliminate bad listening habits.
What you don’t do while listening is just as important as what you do. Aim to eliminate the following bad habits: interrupting, avoiding eye contact, allowing yourself to be distracted, responding dismissively, ignoring the other person’s questions, dominating the conversation, jumping to conclusions, being judgmental, and so on.
You might spend a week jotting down every time you engage in one of these poor listening habits. This will train you to notice these patterns. Then, whenever you catch yourself falling into old habits, choose a more constructive approach.
The manager’s primary job in a conversation isn’t to speak. It’s to engage and understand in order to troubleshoot issues and identify opportunities. Active listening is your ticket to better leadership and greater business success.