All ears: how being a good listener can improve your business

listening, listener
One on one business education meeting concept. Businessman and woman talking against modern office background portrait

Good listening is so much more than simply hearing what someone is saying, adding the occasional ‘mmm, hmmm’ for effect, and being able to echo what you’ve heard to the speaker when they finish (“So, what you’re saying is…”). It is a conversation; an exchange during which the person speaking recognises (and genuinely feels) that you are focused on what they are saying and are there to help or contribute in a meaningful way.

As a business manager or leader, good listening extends beyond your immediate report/s. It’s integral to all of your relationships, whether that’s with your immediate or a broader team, suppliers, customers and clients, or external contractors.

Good listening is one of the foundations of being an effective leader.

What makes a good listener?

American leadership development consultancy, Zenger/Folkman, analysed data describing the behaviour of 3492 participants in a leadership coaching program for managers. They were then able to group the results into four main findings, which essentially determined that good listeners are those people who:

  1. Stay actively engaged in the conversation, rather than just sitting silently.
  2. Build confidence in the speaker by encouraging and supporting them.
  3. Cooperate, rather than stressing a single point or line of thinking.
  4. Provide feedback and suggestions (yes, this is contrary to popular belief!).

Additionally, good listening tends to be accompanied by a number of other useful characteristics, all of which can be improved with practice, including:

  1. Presence and mindfulness. For example, clearing your workspace of distractions (like mobile phones) to ensure you’re focused on the listener.
  2. Inquisitiveness, so being authentically curious about what the speaker is saying.
  3. Withholding judgement and the art of biting your tongue – a good listener will leave his or her ego at the door.
  4. The capacity to hold another person’s opinions at the same time as retaining and respecting his/her own boundaries or limits.

How can listening improve my workplace?

Active listening enables you to draw often important information or conclusions which affect the business – during a job interview, for example, it’s imperative that you clearly understand the candidate’s suitability for the role. Or as an investor, it’s vital you understand your opportunities and risks during a pitch meeting for funding.

Good listening by management will build trust and so improve relationships with staff, which then flows on to positively affect productivity. Staff want to feel heard, so effective managers will make sure they are constantly working on their listening and communication skills.

According to leadership strategist and Forbes contributor, Glenn Llopis, “Leaders who listen are able to create trustworthy relationships that are transparent and breed loyalty. You know the leaders who have their employees’ best interests at heart because they truly listen to them.” The same goes for staff, with good listening directly affecting people’s capacity to perform tasks accurately. The better the workflow, the more confidence staff will have, which builds morale, and so on.

A workplace in which listening and open and honest communication is valued will be one in which collaboration and ideas sharing exists as part of the company culture. In fact, collaboration is the key to developing and maintaining authentic, cooperative relationships, internally between team members, externally, with clients and customers, and beyond, with the wider community.

According to Llopis, “[t]hose who do listen to their employees are in a much better position to lead the increasingly diverse and multigenerational workforce. The ‘one-approach-fits-all’ way of thinking has become outdated and those who embrace the high art of listening are destined to be the better, more compassionate leaders.”

It’s a win-win-win, and it all starts with a generous ear.

Mellissa Larkin, Founder and Managing Director, Peripheral Blue