If you feel like things are changing quickly, you’re not alone. From the emergence of tangible AI technologies to the destabilizing prospect of long-term inflation and possible recession, change seems to be happening at a breakneck speed. In fact, the speed of change is so prolific that 40% of global CEOs believe their company will “no longer be economically viable in ten years’ time, if it continues on its current course.”
While leaders often emphasize the importance of effective communication, they often forget that listening is an important part of that equation, helping people thrive in the midst of rapid change. Listening as an ally, a well-established framework and communication practice, can help leaders navigate challenging situations, find common ground with others and restore positive working relationships. This approach offers a practical and proven pathway for achieving these goals with a clear mind and an open heart.
It involves making the conscious choice to prioritize understanding the other person. It’s setting aside your own judgments, the need to be right and the desire to be skeptical or adversarial to put yourself on the same team as the person you’re listening to. As a leader, this means being willing to set aside predetermined conclusions and trying to discover the benefit of the thoughts, values, ideas and perspectives of the various people on your team. It’s also something that anyone can do.
Here’s how you can become a better listener.
1. Understand that listening as an ally is a developed skill
Listening is a developed skill, not an intuitive one. It takes practice and intentionality to become better at it.
A growth mindset is indispensable here. This can be especially challenging for leaders who feel like they need to know everything and be everything for everyone in the office. Even before the pandemic, leaders were struggling to adapt. As one leader told McKinsey & Company, changing work requirements and shifting responsibilities were “shaking her usual confidence.”
Listening as an ally may feel challenging at first, but each interaction is an opportunity to get better. When we learn something new, we have to be highly conscious of what we’re doing before we become truly competent. As we practice, it becomes easier. Give yourself room to practice and make mistakes.
Commit to learning to listen better, and build an agreement with your team that listening as an ally is a joint effort and expectation. People will inevitably implement it imperfectly, but collective commitment can produce meaningful results. Listening as an ally can be a vulnerable activity, so it’s better when everyone moves together.
2. Teach your team members the practical skills to listen as an ally
Listening as an ally techniques are not novel or overly complicated. When listening to others they include:
- Focus on your listening, and make a decision that understanding them is your most important task.
- Get curious about what they are saying
- Express concern about their thoughts and feelings to show empathy
- Mirror their words to show that you’ve heard them
- Paraphrase to show your understanding.
These are teachable skills that any leader can acquire and transfer to their teams.
First, define listening as an ally with your team and show some skills involved, including curiosity, mirroring, paraphrasing and checking for understanding. Then, start small. Practice these skills in low-stakes situations and model them frequently. Over time, you will build fluency and trust and be able to use listening as an ally in more critical and challenging conversations.
For example, a marketing manager had a habit of listening very critically to her team. It was important to her to produce great results, so she would poke holes in any ideas that came across her desk. When she stopped listening so critically and started listening as an ally, she could see nuggets of value in each idea, which ultimately improved what the team could produce. In this way, teaching your team to listen as an ally isn’t just a work culture exercise. It’s a business imperative that drives bottom-line results.
3. Reap the rewards while continuing to improve
Become a better listener by listening and improving over time. Listening as an ally is a skill that can be developed and improved upon. If your team understands it and practices it, your team will get better.
When this happens, a culture of trust and safety is created. This means people are more willing to voice their concerns, share their ideas and connect with their teams. With that level of openness, you ultimately get better solutions and better productivity in whatever you are trying to do. This also means your team is more resilient, so when conflicts and challenges come up, you can more easily repair and move forward in an authentic and lasting way.
For instance, consider a CEO and product development lead working together to create a new flagship program. Throughout the process, they had fierce disagreements about what needed to be included and omitted. Both were trained in listening as an ally, and though the conversation was challenging, they felt heard and understood, ultimately reaching an agreement they could support. Here, a difficult process that could have injured a different working relationship, made theirs stronger and helped them build even more trust.
Listening is a leadership skill
Leaders should practice, embody and model this first. It’s impossible to expect people to open up and listen to others if you aren’t willing to listen to them first. Additionally, don’t be afraid to practice. This is a skill. View it as a tool that can be sharpened and improved over time.
Most importantly, start where you are, do your best and know that it does get easier. Investing in your communication skills offers an incredible return on investment, improving outcomes and supporting people one conversation at a time.
Rachael Grail is a senior consultant at Interaction Associates, a leading provider of training and consulting services for building a collaborative leadership culture. Learn more by visiting https://www.interactionassociates.com.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.