When I give advice to executive women and especially to new managers, I offer them 12 points that have worked for me. The first one and the most important one is to actively listen. It seems like simple advice. We are after all gifted with two ears and only one mouth. However, to actively listen is more than to just use our ears. There is a lot is those two words.
Most of us do not listen very well. It is the downfall of many executives. We hear. The sound waves go into our ears and the vibration turns the sound into electrical waves which transmit understanding to our brain. We hear what is said, but we do not listen. To listen, our focus must be on what is said. Most of us are so busy thinking of what we are going to say back that we do not really understand what was said to us. This seems to get worse the higher in the executive ranks we go. We are busy. We want to get on to the next thing. We anticipate what we think will be said, connect it with a few words that we heard, and assume we know what was said. Then we answer. The other person is often doing the same thing. It is no wonder that we so often miscommunicate.
When you manage people, you really need to listen to them. This is particularly urgent if you are new in your executive role. People want to tell their story. If you are quick to listen and slow to speak, you will learn many things that will help you in your position. Listen with an open mind and complete focus on what they are saying as much as possible. Don’t try to think of what you will say. People will be more impressed with the fact that you heard them than with a quick response.
Active listening involves entering into the speaker’s story. Since you are focused on what they are saying, you can encourage them as they speak. Look at the speaker. If the speaker is a man, let him finish before speaking. If the speaker is a woman, encourage her verbally. (For more on the why of this, see You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation by Dr. Deborah Tannen.) Women executives tend to listen more and less competitively than men. On the other hand, more is not necessarily better since they are worse about jumping in before the speaker is finished. This is particularly disconcerting to men. After the speaker has said what they want to say, repeat back what you heard to be sure you fully understood. Obviously, you will summarize and you may not actually repeat every item. You don’t want to sound like a Myna bird. However, for important information and important conversation, repeat what you heard.
It is important to listen regularly to your employees. You have to be the one to make the time. When managing a staff, I would meet with the entire group at least monthly. I would meet with each individual monthly. When I was managing at a lower level of the organization, I would meet more frequently. As I moved up through the executive ranks, I met less frequently. If you have many direct reports, you may have to adjust to your circumstances. Nevertheless, it is important to meet regularly and listen to your staff. If you do not intentionally set aside the time on a regularly basis, the urgent will absorb the important and you will have missed something.
Remember. Two ears – one mouth. Let that be your guide in communication.
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