At 100 minutes, the Oscar-winning Best Picture, The Artist, may be the ultimate practice session for improving your listening skills. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that it’s a silent movie – an extraordinary resource for training to listen with your eyes and zoning in on non-verbal cues.
Watching this brilliant black and white film requires fixed focus on the actors – their facial expressions, hand gestures and body movements – to fully comprehend the storyline.
And the same applies when it comes to communication at the office.
Good listening skills are the key to being a great leader. Through my firm’s research, we’ve found that employees identify “good listener” in the top three qualities of a manager they’d most like to work for.
Unfortunately, that skill set is underdeveloped. In my work with a Fortune 50 company, the communication disconnect between executives and front-line associates was so severe that we created a new process entirely focused on listening to bridge the gap.
Branded as “listening sessions,” these informal meetings united a senior level executive with 15 front-line employees from diverse business areas for open dialogue. Gone was the hefty presentation deck that drove traditional communication forums in this organization. Instead, the employees selected to receive advance information about a specific topic to be addressed at the session. They were tasked to come prepared to share their views and those of co-workers about the topic.
Logistics for listening sessions were carefully crafted. The meeting room was located on floors or in work areas removed from executive offices. The room was outfitted with a round table, rather than a boardroom-style table, to create a setting of equal ground. The session lasted an hour, and 80 percent of that time was spent with the leader listening to the feedback of employees. The leader came to the meeting armed with only three things: A notebook and pen for note taking and their ears – no presentations with ominous-looking bar charts and graphs.
Cell phones and electronic devices had to be turned off. Everyone had to fully participate, and finally, employees had to share their experience afterward with co-workers.
The results were phenomenal. First, these employees couldn’t believe an executive was actually listening to them – and I mean really listening. About 10 minutes before the session’s end, the leader reflected back to the group summary key comments that she received from each person. In recapping their feedback, she cited each person by name and stated – in an appreciative tone – one thing that she learned from that person.
These sessions really changed the organizational dynamics. It delivered better communication between levels and better leaders.
The “listening session” model is a terrific springboard for becoming a better listener – and manager. These four tips will up your game as well:
No. 1: Recognize and respond to non-verbals. Think of The Artist again and the amazing performances by Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. They tell the audience everything they need to know through their facial expressions, their body language and gestures. You can do the same thing. For example, when an employee is talking to you, acknowledge what the person is saying through direct eye contact, by leaning forward and nodding your head. These responses show that you’re attentive to what the person is saying.
No. 2: Mitigate distractions. Your iPhone or BlackBerry is always buzzing, emails are popping up every few minutes on your computer and the office phone won’t stop ringing. These are unavoidable barriers to effective listening when you meet with an employee in your office. Lessen the distractions: Turn off your cell phone and place it out of reach. Dial down the ringer on your office phone or forward it to voicemail. Step out from behind your desk to avoid the magnetism of a computer screen. Pull up a chair and place it near the person you’re meeting with. Demonstrate in action that you are all ears.
No. 3: Control what you can. It’s impossible to completely control the environment around you, but you can do things to minimize interruptions. This reminds me of a recent experience I had at a client site. During a meeting in a senior leader’s office, a maintenance crew arrived and began working on something in the ceiling just outside the office door. It was impossible to concentrate on the conversation. So, I suggested to the leader that we take a walk and find an open office. Finding a quieter place allowed me to really listen to what my client had to say.
No. 4: Summarize and reflect. Good listeners are always taking notes, whether it’s mentally or on paper. As a result, when a conversation is over, they are able to recap key points that really struck them and ask questions. They summarize the key message by saying, “I heard you say…” or “If I understand you correctly, you believe that…” This approach will go a long way to signal that you are really listening.
While silence indeed proved to be golden for the movie The Artist, the same cannot be said about the workplace. A silent workforce is one of the biggest barriers to an organization’s success. So get out, connect and start listening. It will make you the kind of leader you’ve always strived to be.
Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda established Dulye & Co. in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications and collaboration through an engaged workforce – a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.