"Leaders who do not listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing significant to say." — Andy Stanley, pastor and leadership expert
High performing teams are managed by leaders who practice active listening. That is, they don’t just listen to hear what is being said, they use a variety of skills to understand the context of what is being spoken.
But perfecting this skill takes time and practice. And managers are busy people.
So, what can you do to support them? More specifically, what can you do to enable them to become better, more considerate managers for their team members—the next generation of leaders?
In this article, we'll answer just that. In fact, we'll explore what is meant by active listening, the benefits of developing your managers listening skills, and we'll also share tips, techniques, and examples to help get them started.
What is meant by active listening?
By definition, active listening means listening with all senses. It relies on the listener—in this case the manager—being actively engaged in the conversation, and not just a passive participant.
Active listeners won't simply hear what is being said, they'll understand what is being spoken. They'll pay attention to the speaker's body language for clues, respond when appropriate, and reflect on it after.
They aren't simply waiting for their turn to talk, or thinking about what they're going to say next. Nor are they distracted, thinking about something else while the person is talking.
Benefits of active listening
Before we dive into how you can help your managers perfect their active listening skills, let’s take a quick look at why active listening is such a critical coaching skill.
Better able to manage hybrid teams
If your workforce has a hybrid work model, managing hybrid teams requires a more specialist skillset. And one of those skills is the ability to actively listen. Teach your managers how to do this and help your leaders develop and manage their hybrid teams better.
Enables a more thorough team health check
When leaders listen to understand, rather than listen to hear, they get a much deeper understanding of what is going on in the team. In fact, awareness is power when it comes managing team dynamics.
By getting to know their team members and encouraging them to open up, your managers will be in a far better position to shine a light on where the team needs more support in developing certain team habits.
Enhances team wellbeing
Active listening enables managers to provide better support for team members and their well-being. Because when managers listen better, they learn to recognize what it is that their employees really want from the team, from their work, and where they’re struggling and need more support.
Establishes manager-employee trust
A thoughtful listener asks questions to find out more, seeks clarification of what is being said, and encourages the speaker to share their perspective.
If people feel they are listened to, they are more likely to make suggestions, express doubts or speak up when they don't think an idea will work.
Amy Edmondson and others identify this as a state of psychological safety, a belief that the team is a safe place for risk taking.
Helps provide better feedback
A leader who actively listens is a more effective coach. That’s because an active listener provides better feedback to their peers as they are more attuned to what has been said.
Active listening examples
But what does active listening look like in practice?
Making eye contact
It goes without saying that the listener needs to signal to the other person that they are giving them their full attention. We listen with our eyes as well as our ears.
In fact, around 55% of what we communicate comes from non-verbal cues (facial expressions, body language and so on).
Marty Spargo, CEO of Reize, says:
"I increase eye contact with [my] employees; I found this an effective way to send a personal message or intention to my employees, without having to verbally emphasize on the matters discussed with them or appearing too uptight."
Providing regular feedback
Teach managers not to interrupt the speaker, but at the same time, don’t have them stand there mute, like a robot.
Have them express their thoughts and feelings with facial expressions and body language. Saying sounds like ‘uh huh’ occasionally. Engage in the conversation without distracting the speaker.
Listening actively is not the same as listening without speaking. Asking questions shows that the listener is paying attention—but only when asked at the right time.
Making constructive suggestions is also fine, as long as the listener has taken the time to ensure they understand what the other person is communicating.
How to improve your managers' listening skills
Effective listening is a skill that requires work. However, research shows we only take in between 25 and 50% of what we hear, but with care this can be improved.
Here’s how you can help your managers improve their listening skills:
If managers need help with their listening skills, arrange masterclasses or organize peer group coaching where groups of managers with similar needs receive training together to improve their coaching ability.
In fact, consider enrolling your managers on a bespoke leadership development program that combines both experiential and digital coaching. This will not only enhance their active listening skills, but it will change their mindsets and help them develop the skills and knowledge needed to improve their team's performance.
Train them to have coaching conversations
Coaching conversations are some of the most important conversations a manager will have with their team members. They lead to more engaged and more productive employees, which leads to better performance outcomes.
It's therefore important that your managers are equipped to have these conversations.
While we've covered everything you need to know about training managers as coaches here, one of the most effective things you can do is to encourage them to be emotionally invested in what their direct reports are telling them.
Empathetic leadership is a critical skill, after all.
Sally-Anne Blanshard, Client Partner at Synthesis Group says:
“Our consultative advice is around understanding your audience, their communication style and being able to converse in a way that connects with them. We use EARS as a brief acronym to help with recall...
- Explore - let the individual share their information/point without interruption
- Acknowledge - acknowledge what you have heard/recap
- Revisit - converse using their language so the message lands
- Summarize - and agree on next steps and get validation that the individual is happy to progress.”
Reflect on their listening abilities
Have managers pick a few specific conversations over the past few weeks and reflect on how they listened.
Here are some great questions to prompt that reflection:
- Were you interrupted or distracted by anything? If so, what?
- Were you multi-tasking?
- Were you actively engaging in the conversation?
- Were you interrupting, or tempting to interrupt, the other person?
- Was it taxing to pay your full attention? If so, why?
Find bridging points
Have managers look for points of similarity or connection, such as a shared goal or a common interest, especially if the person or people they’re conversing with are superficially quite different. This is a great way to create psychological safety and build a personal bond.
Finding common ground also helps the other person feel supported and valued, and can convey confidence in them, which is a key quality of good listening.
If the other person is taking a little while to articulate their thoughts, give them time. Tell managers not to feel the need to jump in and fill the gap.
Reflect on what they heard
Make sure managers never just assume that they understood what was said. Teach them to reflect on what was said, and paraphrase what they heard to make sure that they are on the same page as their direct report.
One way they can do this is by repeating what they've taken from the conversation, in their own words. In fact, the reflection should always be asked as a question.
- If I understand you correctly…?
- So, you were upset when…?
Clarify any ambiguous points
If something the manager hears is uncertain, make sure they ask clarifying questions such as:
- Just so I’m clear, you said…
- Can you tell me more about…
They aren’t just clearing up any confusion they themselves may have, but it could be that the speaker is uncertain too. By reflecting on what was spoken, it can even help the speaker solve their own problem.
How Saberr can help you develop your leaders
Practicing active listening can help your leaders become better managers and coaches. But being able to actively listen, reflect on the conversation, respond, and provide feedback, aren’t always easy leadership skills to master. They often take time to learn.
Plus, managers are busy—daily pressures both at work and at home place constant demands on them as leaders. Which is where Saberr comes in.
At Saberr, we build high impact leadership development programs for all leaders, regardless of their circumstances and time constraints.
In fact, through a combination of experiential and digital coaching, we not only equip your managers with the necessary skills to lead—including, but certainly not limited to active listening—but we also reinforce this learning through digital.
In fact, through a combination of machine learning and nudge coaching technology, we help them improve their leadership skills and develop the habits needed to build high-performing teams, in the flow of their day to day work.