10 ways to be a better listener

Communication is not a one-way street. While speaking is a crucial part of effective leadership, its counterpart – listening – is often overlooked.

As many as one in four corporate leaders find out they could be better listeners in 360-degree feedback, according to the Harvard Business Review. Listening is a skill which can have a major impact on a company’s fortunes.

One thing I’m still learning in my career is the power of silence. When I was younger, I always believed that unless my lips were moving, I wasn’t contributing.

I just hoped that whoever was at the receiving end of my verbal bombardment was able to pick out the useful bits.

I’m by no means an expert at listening or being silent, but I hope these ideas on how to be an effective listener are helpful.

  1. Choose the right place

Finding the right environment is key – a café, a sofa or a quiet corner are all better than a formal office, boardroom, or meeting room. Create a situation where they feel comfortable to open up. Likewise, sitting next to them will create a more intimate situation without being face-to-face, which can appear separated and confrontational. I find kitty-corner (two sides of a corner of a table) the most effective layout.

  1. Ask questions, but don’t interrupt

Ask lots of short questions, which are designed to give long answers. Such as, ‘Tell me more…’, ‘Why?’ and, ‘What prompted that approach?’ Then let them answer fully before you ask another question. I know lots of people who think they are good listeners because they ask questions – but then blow it by asking a follow-up question before the previous one has been answered fully.

  1. Look at them

Watch their body language. Look them in the eye. Give the other person your undivided attention: make them feel that there is nothing more important in the world to you at that moment.

  1. Show empathy

Understand their perspective without taking over the conversation. Saying, ‘Yeah, the same thing happened to me’ and then launching into your own personal story is not listening. It’s taking over the conversation and making them listen to you.

  1. Don’t problem-solve immediately

You don’t need to jump in and try to ‘solve’ the situation, nor do you need to necessarily resolve every comment. At the end of the conversation, it may be useful to wrap up with some actions, but jumping into solution mode immediately isn’t good listening.

  1. Take notes

Taking notes is a great way to shut yourself up. It’s hard to talk and write at the same time, writing things down makes the other person feel they are important, and often while you are writing – and the room is silent – they will say more than they originally intended. Let them fill the silence.

  1. Stay on-topic

Stick to the topic they want to discuss. This is about them and their topics of interest, not you and yours.

  1. Keep it secret

Remind the person that – if appropriate – your conversation is confidential and you won’t betray that trust. A good listener talks little. Loose lips sink ships.

  1. Give them time

Find the right moment and allow enough time for the conversation. You can’t give someone a good listening to in five minutes. It takes time.

  1. Ditch the tech

When your phone starts flashing, it becomes the centre of attention – not the other person. So keep your tech out of the room.


By Stephen Welch

Former IABC President

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