Effective Communication Begins with the Ability to Listen
Among high-performing companies, the most telling and consistent characteristics of executive leaders seems both obvious and somewhat surprising at the same time. Almost every CEO we studied has superior communications skills, of course. Meaning they are good at oral, written, and non-verbal expressions of ideas, updates, thoughts, suggestions, recommendations, and yes, even mandates. However, these highly effective entrepreneurial business leaders have a necessary skill that is often overlooked: the ability to listen.
When describing highly-developed communication skills, the emphasis is often placed on effectively crafting and sending the message (spoken or written) rather than the ability to receive the message.
We can all agree that the ability to listen fully, with empathy and focus, is essential to effective communication. The most effective leaders understand that listening is a skill. It can be taught, practiced, and improved upon over time. Conversely, if ignored, it can atrophy.
How important is it to listen? In workshops we’ve developed on this subject, we've asked participants whether or not they can tell when someone is listening to them. What are the observable actions that give the listener away?
When listening is not going on, participants report lack of eye contact, distractions such as going through things on their desk, looking through papers, checking emails and/or text messages, looking at the clock or their watch (by the way, nothing says “I have far more important things to get to than this” more loudly than checking the time while someone is talking to you), or interrupting to ask a question that has nothing to do with the subject at hand. We were given examples where the other person will call out to someone walking by or turn their back to type on their laptop. One even recalled the person getting up and leaving the room!
Are there equally observable signs that someone is actively listening? Turns out there are, and they include maintaining eye contact; using positive body language such as leaning forward; asking relevant, clarifying questions; nodding in agreement; taking notes (with permission) relating to the discussion; and basically, ignoring the behaviors mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Once we know the difference, it only makes sense to emulate the behaviors consistent with effective listening.
I once asked a friend and colleague of mine, a clinical psychologist for many years, to describe his most compelling value proposition. His response was immediate: the ability to listen without judgement or emotion. Surprised, I asked “that’s it?” His response took me aback. “Well, who does that for you?”
It’s not by accident that people we respect and admire most tend to have this ability, this skill. When it comes to developing our leadership skill set, why not start with this one? And practice, practice, practice!
Joseph P. Truncale, Ph.D., CAE, is the Founder and Principal of Alexander Joseph Associates, a privately held consultancy specializing in executive business advisory services with clients throughout the graphic communications industry.
Joe spent 30 years with NAPL, including 11 years as President and CEO. He is an adjunct professor at NYU teaching graduate courses in Executive Leadership; Financial Management and Analysis; Finance for Marketing Decisions; and Leadership: The C Suite Perspective. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone or text: (201) 394-8160.