Frederick Achom is an entrepreneur and co-founder of the Rosemont Group Capital Partners, a private investment group with a portfolio including renewables, financial services, and digital tech.
What’s the most important skill for company founders, start-up owners, dynamic entrepreneurs? Passion? Communication? Business acumen? All of these are important, of course, but listening is the game-changer.
Research shows that just 10% of us listen properly. That is, a whopping 90% of us fail to listen effectively. Of course, we usually technically ‘listen’ but we find our minds wandering to other subjects.
Effective listening is vital for business leaders
In my career, across my businesses, investments and partnerships, I have always found listening to be the main driver of growth. Staying open, tuning in to other people and, above all, listening to our customers, helps drive business success. Most people assume they’re good listeners but taking the time to really master this deceptively difficult skill can pay dividends.
Bain&Company carried out a survey in 2016 on leadership traits. They asked 2,000 employees to rate 33 separate leadership skills and traits. Respondents selected ‘centredness’ as the number one characteristic they appreciate in a business leader. In this context, ‘centredness’ means the person demonstrating the ability to truly be present and give their full attention to the other person. It’s about making employees feel heard and valued.
Business leaders must make sure that every team member is listened to equally. That means the quiet ones who can be tentative about coming forward. It also means those who demonstrate different communication styles.
Don’t overestimate your listening ability
It’s all too easy to pay more attention to speaking our voice rather than listening to others. This is particularly the case with business founders, entrepreneurs and start-up owners. We tend to be extroverted personalities, with ‘Type A’ communication styles.
I admire anyone who can clearly communicate their thoughts to a room full of people, as and when they crop up. But I admire business leaders more when they really listen to other people. Listening allows an insight into new perspectives. It helps to understand what’s not being said and to find out what’s missing from the puzzle.
According to development advisor Melissa Daimler, there’s more than one listening style. In fact, she says there are three different listening levels: internal listening, focused listening and 360-degree listening. Internal listening is where we concentrate on our own thoughts rather than the person speaking. Focused listening is where we listen but don’t fully connect and so miss the subtext. The final level, 360-degree listening is where we listen to what the other person says and how they’re saying it.
How well do you listen to your employees?
And while we may assume that we’re always at the highest level of listening, cognitive bias says we probably aren’t. This is why it’s good to check in every now and again and see where you measure up to the four listening qualities, as defined by leadership consultants Joseph Folkman and Jack Zenger:
- Positivity – good leaders are able to give constructive, thoughtful feedback. If the other person thinks you’re listening properly, they are far more likely to take your feedback on board.
- Cooperation – bad listeners use the time when others are speaking to construct a combative correction or statement. This leads to a defensive, unproductive conversation. Feedback should flow in both directions more or less equally.
- Support – effective listeners boost the other person’s confidence during the conversation.
- Participation – great listeners ask questions and delve deeper into the subject.
How to become a better listener
If we’re busy, distracted or stressed, it’s all too easy to pay less attention than we should. During those times you realise you haven’t truly heard your colleague, team member or employee, use the following techniques to boost your listening effectiveness. Some sound obvious, but they’re simple to miss.
- Make direct eye contact – this shows confidence and respect for the person speaking. Don’t let your gaze stray to your computer screen or phone and switch off notifications. The other person should have your total, undivided attention.
- Ask open questions – if you ask questions that can only have a closed answer, you’re effectively stifling the conversation. This is likely to leave the other person frustrated and feeling unvalued.
- Allow them to finish – don’t be tempted to speak over them and try not to even frame your response until they’ve stopped talking. Pauses are OK, don’t feel you have to immediately fill any thoughtful silence.
- Try to hear what isn’t being said – around 80% of all human communication is nonverbal. If you pick something up from a facial expression, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Watch your speaking/listening ratio – if you’re not leading the conversation, watch how much you speak. As the business leader, you’re likely to automatically take control of the conversation. This isn’t ideal, when you need to listen to the other person.
Effective listeners work better in teams, learn and absorb information faster and contribute to a workable culture. They also tend to interact with clients, customers and colleagues better. Leading by example as an effective, meaningful listener will encourage your workforce to do the same. Cultivate this skill within your organisation for more effective business growth.