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When it comes to communication skills and leadership, common sense is sometimes not common practice. That’s especially true when it comes to listening.

What does listening have to do with leadership? This core communication skill is integral to building relationships, fostering trust, generating creativity, strengthening teamwork, enhancing employee morale and finding solutions that customers need and want.

Unfortunately, the reality is that while the skill of listening is the first learned (we can hear in our mothers’ wombs) and most utilized, it is the least studied and mastered. The vast majority of people never receive any formal active listening training. Instead, most of us “assimilate” how to listen through our families and early life experiences. We develop habitual listening barriers such as judging, criticizing, interrupting, premature problem solving and other behaviors that compromise our ability to truly hear and understand what others are communicating.

So, what is active listening? It is an age-old approach to listening that puts this intention first: Seek first to understand what the speaker is communicating.

Active listening utilizes three core skills:

  • Paraphrasing, or restating, what you heard in your own words to make sure that you fully understood what the person said.
  • Asking clarifying questions to better understand the speaker and to perhaps delve more deeply.
  • Summarizing periodically, and at the end of conversations, to make sure that you are on the same page as the speaker in your understanding.

The primary goal of active listening is to seek to understand the other person in an open-minded way, thus avoiding any chances for misunderstanding and mishaps.

So, back to those pesky, habitual barriers that impede our listening.  It’s critical to explore what goes on behind the curtain when we listen to others. What is distracting you—consciously or unconsciously—while in the process of listening? What barriers are you putting up that might get in the way of understanding what the speaker is trying to communicate?

Are you evaluating the speaker? Are you eagerly waiting your turn to speak or focusing on what you might say next? Are you feeling impatient and completing the speaker’s sentences? Are you distracted by your smartphone, or thoughts about what’s for lunch or the fact that you like, or don’t like, this person? In short, so much is typically going on when we think we’re listening that it’s very hard to get beyond the noise in our heads to truly hear what that person is trying to tell us!

Becoming a leader who listens well requires self-awareness, self-reflection, commitment and practice. It is, perhaps, the ultimate mindfulness exercise as the essence of listening is being fully present to another human being. While habits are challenging to break, the results will be greater understanding, connection and rapport with others, increased curiosity, creativity and a heightened attunement to what your internal and external customers need.

Joan Lowery, M.Ed., SCF Leadership Academy faculty member, has been designing and delivering training and coaching programs around the globe for more than 20 years. For more information about the SCF Leadership Academy, contact Lee Kotwicki at (941) 363-7218 or kotwicL@scf.edu.

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