By Gloria West
On the Myers-Briggs personality type assessment, my preference for extroversion is always very clear. I get my energy from interacting with other people and engaging with the outside world. I am naturally sociable and friendly, and would rather take action instead of spending a lot of time thinking through my approach. When I met my mother-in-law for the first time, she said that I “had never met a stranger.”
Those qualities provide me with some natural strengths and talents — I can think on my feet, stay energized for days in workshops with clients, and truly enjoy meeting and interacting with a variety of people regularly. And this helps me daily in my career as a facilitator and consultant in leadership development.
However, on the flip side of every great personal strength, I find there is typically a weakness or challenge area. For me, it’s the skill of listening. I’m not sure if this means that all extroverts are poor listeners, but I do know that my desire to speak my mind, express my opinions and feelings and share common experiences with other people get in the way of truly listening to someone else. A lot of times I find myself thinking about what I want to say next, instead of paying attention to what someone else is saying.
In my role as a coach, listening effectively is vital to my success, and I must therefore exert more focus and energy to this skill to make sure I’m doing my job. These three approaches help me keep my ability to listen honed and disciplined.
1 – Recognize That It’s Part of My Job
No matter how many presentations I give or seminars I lead, a huge part of my job always involves listening. In fact, the coaching process requires more listening than it does talking. I know I have to pay attention to what my client is talking about, absorb it and give thoughtful questions or responses that can help my client better understand their challenges, and to help them develop ideas for possible solutions.
I’m constantly reminding myself that being an ineffective listener just isn’t workable in my line of work. If I’m going to be good at my job, I understand that I have to constantly work at listening to make sure it’s a well-developed skill that I can rely on, even though it may not come as naturally for me as others.
2 – Listen Patiently and Seek Understanding
I believe it’s important to hear people out when they have something to communicate, and to practice patience as others form and share their thoughts.
Sometimes this requires making an extra effort to let people finish what they are saying. I remind myself that just because they stop talking, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time for me to jump in. In reality, they may be trying to finish a thought or search for the best words in their head to communicate an important idea. Something else that I’ve learned that I still struggle with — silence doesn’t mean that they’re finished expressing themselves. Sometimes the pause is a struggle to come up with the right words, or it’s a signal that the person is emotional about the subject. Being patient and not jumping in or trying to finish their sentence is hard, but absolutely important to really understanding their situation.
Other tactics I’ve tried that help are writing down notes or my thoughts instead of immediately verbalizing, sharing ideas later in one-on-one meetings or even counting to 10 before speaking so that others have a chance to speak up.
3 – Ask The Right Questions
When it comes to listening, I take the approach that if I can ask people the right questions, chances are I’ll get them talking about topics that make me want to listen closely. We’re not supposed to talk about religion or politics at work. That’s a bummer because those are some of the most important topics! And small talk is usually so dull. Who really wants to talk about the weather?
The key is to use open-ended, but specific, questions. Open ended means that you can’t answer with just a “yes” or “no.” If I make these specific, then I can typically get someone to open up about something interesting.
For example, rather than simply asking, “How’s it going?” I would aim to say something both open-ended and specific like, “Tell me about the last presentation you did. How did it go?” That’s going to create much better conversation or discussion that allows me to more effectively help people.
Why is it important to be good at listening? Listening is not about agreeing, but showing respect for others’ ideas and perspectives, increasing understanding and ultimately building stronger conclusions. Listening correlates strongly with many other leadership skills, like composure, trust, political savvy and the ability to motivate others.
I know I’ll never truly master Listening. I don’t think it’ll ever be a natural strength. But with effort and attention, I can still be competent at this powerful skill.
Success Labs is a full-service, strategic organizational and leadership development company located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.