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The 6 Rewards of Active Listening

(posted: June 25th, 2013)

Good leaders are visionaries. They see the big picture, they can see strategically into the future, and they have big ideas. Good leaders can talk passionately about their vision, and can be very articulate about the goal.

However, leaders are often less passionate with their listening.

Why Leaders Need To Listen

Did you know...?

We spend 60% of our communication time listening.

We retain only 25% of what we hear.

Scary, isn't it?

The 6 benefits of Active Listening:

  • Reduced Errors - Nearly 60% of all errors in an organization are related in some form to a lack of active listening. 60%. Imagine the effect on profits if you prevented the majority of errors before they occurred.
  • Improved Problem Solving - Because you are more open, active listening provides you with a wider range of possible solutions. That gives you a higher chance of solving the problem faster and with greater accuracy, which means you are back to creating, producing and innovating sooner.
  • Product / Service improvements - If you practice active listening with your customer, whether they are a B2C end user or a B2B customer, you create a product or service that they are much more likely to buy.
  • Greater Opportunities / Innovations - By listening closely, you are more likely to catch suggestions, ideas, or even parts of ideas, that may create an opportunity or become an innovative new product. It's always better to have lots of ideas and opportunities to innovate with.
  • Employee Engagement - When you really listen to your people, you are creating a level of trust and loyalty that can't be "bought" with salaries or perks.
  • Authentic Communication - Somewhat less tangible, but valuable nevertheless - you will be communicating genuinely and sincerely, and all kinds of benefits can - and do - develop from that.

One client of mine was frustrated by the inability of his staff to understand the big ideas he was really passionate about, when it seemed so clear to him. It quickly became apparent to me that he wasn't communicating effectively with them because he wasn't listening to them.

I see this in my executive level clients much more than you might imagine - the leader who forgets to listen.

  • What the staff heard was "you have to change and do things this new way", but they never got the chance to express that to their boss.
  • The more he talked, the more they resisted.
  • Their fear of what they thought they were hearing got in the way of really hearing and understanding their leader, and so the cycle continued.

When we worked together to distill his message to his staff, we also looked at the non-verbal cues that were present - Crossed arms, little to no visible reaction, no participation, no questions, no comments, no eye contact.

Had he been "listening" for these cues, he could have changed his message sooner.

Once he was able to tell his people that he was not asking them to change, just to understand his ideas and be able to speak intelligently about them should customers ask, they relaxed and engaged.

After this experience, my client understood that listening required actively paying attention to what was not being said, as much as what was, and that it was essential to communicating his vision and getting buy-in.

How to Practice Active Listening

In the example with my client, if he had been practicing Active Listening, he would have realized quickly that something was wrong and taken steps to correct it right away. He would have saved months of discord among his people, which reduces productivity, and he also would have gotten his ideas into play sooner. In a different industry the company might have suffered from lost innovation and competitive edge, as well.

It really is a "practice", because to develop your active listening skills requires consistent work and attention.

The 4 Keys to Active Listening

We could talk all day about the important elements of listening actively, but there are four basics to focus on initially, and a good way to remember these skills is to keep this acronym in mind:


  • Receive - As the listener, you have to be the "receiver", staying open to what may come, and absorbing the non-verbal signals as well as the verbal information.
  • Appreciate - Don't interrupt, but do indicate that you are listening through small gestures, making eye contact, and encouraging sounds ("mm-hmm", "I see").
  • Summarize - When the speaker is finished, or has reached some kind of break, rephrase what you think they have been telling you and say it out loud to them. This is more confirmation that you are really listening, and if you got it wrong, they'll probably correct you.
  • Ask questions - Again, when the speaker is finished, or at appropriate points during the conversation, ask questions. Ask specific, intelligent questions to clarify what has been said, or to elicit further information, or to make sure that what you heard was what the speaker intended. Don't hesitate to ask tough questions, either.
"It is the province of knowledge to speak. And it is the privilege of wisdom to listen."

~Oliver Wendell Holmes

Finally, throughout the conversation:

  • Stay Present - Start by being aware and present. Great leaders don't fake it during a conversation, and their attention doesn't wander.
  • Pay Attention - Don't stop paying attention because you think you know what's coming, or because you are formulating your response or thinking of a story that illustrates the point, or cut the speaker off so that you can address what you see as a problem.

Great Leaders Are Great Listeners

Good listening can make the difference between success and failure in business.

People need to feel heard, especially in our high tech, super-connected world, where listening is so rare. If we as leaders believe that everyone around us has something unique to contribute, and we show that belief with the gift of active listening, we will be rewarded with good ideas, innovative solutions, better decision-making, and, ultimately, higher profits.

Challenge Yourself
  • What tips do you have for improving listening?
  • How do you practice your active listening skills?
  • Do you have a story about your active listening making a difference?

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