Active Listening as a Leader:
4 Ways to Use Emotional Intelligence To Listen Exceptionally Well
Surveying thousands of people over 15 years, there are two attributes that make real leaders stand out. The first is listening. Why’s it such a rare and powerful practice among leaders? What would it take to be one of those?
Today, I spoke with a group of business leaders in Lisbon, and again, listening popped up as a rare and exceptionally powerful gift of exceptional leaders. If I were talking to your colleagues, would they think of you as the one “stand out leader” in their lives? I suspect that more careful listening is one of the most powerful ways to get on this most exclusive of lists. But in a world of Zooms, smartphones, and packed schedules, there are more obstacles to listening than ever before.
Why is listening so significant?
From my personal experience, it’s easy for me to think of times when I didn’t sense real listening. This triggers all kinds of insecurities for me: Do I matter? Am I included? Do I have a voice? As a somewhat introverted person, I’ve often felt like an outsider. But when someone really listens to me, I can FEEL the connection. I suspect listening meets many of our basic human needs:
First, good listening is a gift that touches a core need for significance. When people listen to us, they give us time. They don’t “take time” to listen, they give it. This sends us a primal signal: I matter.
Second, when a leader listens, we feel belonging – which is one of the most powerful human motivators. Literally, when we “feel listened to,” we have a “seat at the table.” We are part of the group — and when it’s the leader listening, we’re part of the leader’s group. We’re in.
Feeling heard activates a third basic human need: accomplishment. We have a voice. We have a chance to contribute. We’re part of the solution.
Why is listening so difficult?
Thinking about this article, I was remembering the last few interactions I had with my team. I was leaving on a long trip, had about a million and seven tasks to accomplish, and I was pretty focused on my own “stuff.” One of my team members came to ask me some questions. At one level, I perceived it as an interruption and went into judgment, “this isn’t really important, why do we need to talk about this now?” Thankfully I’ve learned to halt that inner critic pretty quickly, and I navigated my emotions and turned on some empathy… but this initial reaction offers some insight (I hope so, else, I’ve just admitted to being a bit of a jerk for no reason).
As I mentioned in a recent article about stress and collaboration, there’s intriguing research about the way our prefrontal network prioritizes information. In order to “focus” on tasks and data, our brains shut off other functions, including processing emotional data: more task orientation means less empathy. In our high-stress lives, we are forcing our brains to juggle, and when there are too many balls in the air, we drop some. Unfortunately, we often drop the fragile glass ones that create trust and partnership and respect.
In the Six Seconds Model, one of our core competencies is to Recognize Patterns. What are your typical reactions when you have too much to do? When you think someone is interrupting? When you feel impatient? My patterns certainly don’t help me listen…
How to be a better listener?
I suspect that one reason emotional intelligence is essential in good listening is that EQ skills help us cope with stress (here’s some research on EQ & stress in healthcare). EQ skills help us juggle those glass balls… and, help us prioritize which ones to drop when we’ve got to do that. Accurate assessment, after all, is one of the key outcomes of intelligence (be it emotional or mathematical). So a few tips for bringing emotional intelligence forward when listening:
1. Engage imagination and curiosity
For a recent article on Forbes about the neuroscience of empathy, researcher Marco Iacoboni shared some insights about the links between imagination and empathy. When you imagine, you build new neural pathways — you create bridges. You don’t KNOW what the person is experiencing, but you can play, “what if.” “What if I had this problem?” “What if I had to talk to me right now?” “What if she is uncertain and needs my help?” “What if there is a real problem I’m not seeing?”
I’ve found curiosity to be an invaluable partner to listening. There’s a Japanese proverb I love, “The other side also has another side.” Everyone has a story. There’s something fascinating hiding just out of view. People rarely (never?) say what’s really on their minds… heck, half the time I don’t even know what’s really on mine. But with this combo of imagination and curiosity I can enter into a sense of wonder and openness that let’s me hear much more than is said.
The biggest obstacle, perhaps, is busyness. Did you see the intriguing NY Times opinion about “The Busy Trap“? Summary: “The ‘crazy busy’ existence so many of us complain about is almost entirely self-imposed.” We LIKE being busy! We’re addicted to it. Probably in a literal, chemical sense of addiction. I’ve noticed on long plane rides across the Pacific, I am a great listener. Or on an ambling walk through the winding streets of Rome. Or laying on the warm sand near home on the California Coast. Or during super-late-night letlag-fueled chats sipping mint tea in Singapore’s Arab Quarter. These are “time out of time” movements. There’s no agenda. No menacing “to do” list.
The obvious implication is that I am much better at listening when there are not “more important things to do.” Hmm. Let that settle in for a minute: What’s our job as leaders? Isn’t leading our people actually the most important thing to do?
3. Remember that faking it is, well… fake
There’s conflicting evidence about smiling — it seems even a fake smile can lower your stress and improve your mood, but research says it can also make you miserable to fake happiness. In any case, many people are able to see through as least many of the fakes (you can test yourself on this free BBC experiment). In any case, when we “fake it,” we send a mixed emotional message. This inconsistency is a signal that can trigger distrust — even if we’re not aware that’s happening. Instead, take ownership of your feelings so you can be real.
Keep noticing your own feelings. When you feel impatient, anxious, overwhelmed… you are unlikely to be a good listener. These are not “negative” or “bad” feelings, they have an important role and purpose, and you’re unlikely to be effective trying to “just push them aside.” Instead, recognize the emotions as signals of a problem, and deal with it. Do so before it escalates and it will be relatively easy — otherwise you’ll have a long period of under-performance, especially in jobs such as listening.
You can learn to navigate emotions. If you need help, get an EQ coach. It’s an invaluable skill if you’re committed to leading people.
4. Suspend and attend
My friend Mimi Frenette shared this phrase when we were teaching EQ skills to the US Navy. Suspend means to stop doing other tasks, and to stop internal chatter (e.g., thinking of what you’re going to say back). Attend means to notice — not just hearing the words, but attending to the meaning. What’s underneath?
As Lea Brovedani describes in TRUSTED, leaders who listen stop what they’re doing. They close their computers. They move to a new chair. They give their attention. This makes listening into a literal moment of investment in the relationship. An investment in trust.
In her chapter on empathy in Leader as a Mensch, Bruna Martinuzzi provides several tips for listening, including: “Don’t interrupt people. Don’t dismiss their concerns offhand. Don’t rush to give advice. Don’t change the subject. Allow people their moment.”
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The proverb mentioned in the article – “The other side also has another side” is a good reminder that in a conversation, we are only seeing and listening to just one aspect of the human being speaking with us, and yet, this human being has so many aspects in his or her life that we are unaware of, their own unique stories of their lives. Remaining curious, keep wondering and opening our hearts to whoever we are with, giving our presence – thanks for the article in serving these reminders, especially useful in remembering on my own coaching journey. thank you
Suspend and attend, as a Coach active listening is very important, being able to combine it with curiosity and suspending the inner voices will help us be this guide on the side.
Thanks for this Josh!
Active Listening is also extremely valuable for a coach. When I say listening, I mean not just in a physical, audio, way but also using your ‘heart senses’ to see how both the coachee and you are feeling.
Curiosity is a powerful tool to demonstrate that the other person matters and to build trust/connection. It shows that you’ve already been paying attention and that you are interested in exploring further.
Really great article, thank you.
Great article!!! Definate tools to guide us in becoming great leaders.
The comment about being a good listener on airplanes could not speak to me more. I get so bored just watching movies that I look for almost any chance I can to converse with the people next to me.
Thank you for this great article on listening. I particularly liked the tip, “suspend and attend.” This is great advice in our busy world when it’s easy to get pretty self-focused on what’s most important. I have to share an ironic story. The other evening at a networking dinner on leadership, the guy across from me, CEO of a branding agency, monopolized the conversation for most of dinner, talking 90% of the time about the most amazing leadership program he’d just been through that “transformed my life.” Guess what the focus of his program was? Active listening!
I love the those words: imagination, curiosity, openness, and wonder. What a great way to describe what it means to listen. I hope to keep the ‘what if’ questions in mind before engaging with others because there is likely something I don’t know of the other person – only when we’re able to step in another’s shoes will we be begin to connect.
Empathy as knowing the difference between ‘when to act’ and ‘when not to act’ is important. I get the listening and feeling part its the action part that often I don’t do in a way that communicates how deeply I feel.
Great article! I am currently reading an excellent book called ‘More time to think’ by Nancy Kline. In it she describes the ten components of what she terms a ‘Thinking Environment’. Effective listening is one of those components and one of the most important I think.
Thanks Sharon – isn’t it challenging. We create norms where there’s a brutal scarcity of time, and where quickly getting our ideas on the table is paramount… and then we stop listening.
Recently, I’m working with a group of sales team. I believe and understand that the why listening is so significant is the key to successful sales people.
As for myself, it’s the inner voice that we need to pay more attention in our life. Some time we apply hear our inner voice and need to pay more attention and listen more to our inner voice.
Love the sharing on how and will apply it more in my training and life!
I like the four tips in the article and find them practical. Especially the first one, imagination and curiosity, I definitely will practise more.
I recently saw some research that suggested that men listen to facts more so than to details. That is why we often become agitated or frustrated when someone starts telling a story that includes a lot of details. Knowing this and reading this article makes me realize that I need to be more cognitively aware of my own listening and to make myself be more present in those conversations.
Imagine if we all gave a little more time out of our busy schedules to listen to our team, our family and our friends.
Prioritizing can be the hardest task of all, as we tend to work towards task management deadlines that have been determined, however, you don’t know exactly the internal deadline people have set. If you miss that deadline, by always focusing on other things, people are fragile and harder fix than any other tasks you achieved and may have longer consequences to fix them. Decide when to listen to people who need you and take time if you care or need them too..
I love the tips on how to be a better listener. i recall i used to have my desk facing the corner of my office and found that people would walk in behind me and i would listen to hear and then reply to their question or need and after they left I did not recall even who it was. i promptly turned my desk to face the door. it helps. I am working on being present when people talk and to quite the answer machine in my head.
Thanks for the valuable insights.
What an insightful short piece with useful tips for developing great listening habits – I have so often encountered and worked for leaders who demonstrated all the behaviours of non-listeners and more – another trait is “roll-over” – they are so full of what they have to say, they will roll over a subordinate attempting to contribute, “drown them out” by interrupting and “speaking over” the other person. I realize that it can often be well-intentioned in trying to give the subordinate different information or a preferred perspective, but it sends a powerful signal to the subordinate – your views, comments, observations, etc. are of lesser importance and do not need to be listened to. Unfortunately, when the subordinate comes to a leadership position, it becomes extremely difficult not to emulate the “roll-over” behaviour in turn. I would suggest that one of the greatest qualities of a great listener is to create temporal space and encouragement for speakers – this is perhaps an expansion of part of your #4 comments from Bruna Martinuzzi. I would suggest it should be more than just a “tip.”
Great comment – thank you CJ. Yes, this “space” is at the heart of listening. In the Six Seconds Model, we have the competency of Increase Empathy in “Give Yourself.” You have to give to the person to actually connect… and when you give, you get.
This is a good counter to the critique of leadership education by the Naval Academy prof today. He argues that people should focus on academic disciplines–where do listening and risk taking fit into traditional academics?
Leaders do know the importance of listening theoretically. Yet they go back to their same old hard wired ways.How could they be helped to remember to follow the tips given while they were getting task focussed ?
Hi Niloufer – I think you’re right on. The issue isn’t so much “how” but “why.” When the why is fully alive, commitment follows.
So would focusing on a task make it a left brain activity, whereas the emotions are primarily right brain?
the current neuroscience on this is more “top down / bottom up” rather than left-right. Focusing on task activates the Task Positive Network which is more top-down. Emotional reflection engages the Default State Network which is more bottom-up.
Top Down, Bottom Up =Unite
Appreciate the emotional intelligence resolve.