Effective leaders are good listeners. When leaders first assume a position of responsibility, taking the time to hear and understand the people who make up a unit can help them build rapport and credibility from the get-go.
One effective practice among influential and successful leaders is to embark on a listening and learning exercise when they first take over: making the time to visit, speak with and -- most important -- listen to the people within the units or divisions they oversee. Another focal point for listening and learning can be to conduct an assessment of your unit’s strengths and shortcomings. You can then use the results as the basis for a group conversation or individual interviews. Faculty or staff members may all agree that a particular issue is a problem, but they might have very different ideas about what is causing that problem or how best to deal with it. The Academic Unit Diagnostic Tool (AUDiT) dashboard, which we have discussed in previous columns, can be a useful resource in such initial assays.
Beyond a specific tour and assessment, ongoing and continuous listening as a leader can help build a healthy and productive unit in at least three significant ways.
No. 1. Listening shows respect and regard for the people you work with. It helps to build rapport and demonstrates that you care about others and what they have to say. Listening is reciprocal, and leaders can model this behavior; when you are a good listener, people will tend to listen more carefully to you, as well. Thus, listening is a powerful tool for increasing influence and improving relationships at work. The best listeners in an organization are also frequently the biggest influencers.
No. 2. Listening builds a broader sense of trust and community. Most people -- and especially those in academe -- generally have something to say, and it can feel good to know that others consider those insights important enough to seek them out. Listening to the people who work with and for you is an invaluable skill in leadership -- and an essential duty. It demonstrates that you value the members of your group as well as your external and internal stakeholders. Together, such manifestations can improve effectiveness in your work and interactions.
No. 3. Listening broadens your perspective and helps you accumulate important information and reduce misunderstandings. If your work colleagues are comfortable bringing their ideas, concerns and issues to you, they will generally be more satisfied and more productive, and you will be aware of potential problems before they can grow. To capture a comprehensive view of the unit, it is useful to speak not just with the faculty but also with administrators and staff. Listening is fundamental to innovation and problem solving. When the leader is a good listener, everyone becomes more capable of providing value in their work.
Active vs. Passive Listening
There are different kinds of listening, and they are best suited to different kinds of interactions. Sometimes it is enough for people to simply feel they’ve been heard; other times you’ll need to invest more actively in the conversation to glean more details and confirm facts. In still other situations, you will be receiving a complaint or grievance upon which you must act as an authority figure, which requires still a different set of listening tools.
Active listening requires full engagement in the conversation with the other person. A key aspect of active listening is to ask questions rooted in curiosity to draw out further details and to paraphrase the statements of others in order to confirm your understanding. Another aspect of active listening is to demonstrate that you are paying attention and hearing the other person through your body language (like eye contact) and affirmation (like nodding your head).
Passive listening is more relevant when others simply need to vent frustrations or think through their own issues out loud. Passive listening is less about seeking to understand and more about ensuring that the other person feels heard.
Whether you engage in active or passive listening depends largely on what you perceive to be the other person’s goals. Is this a discussion in which you need to learn something? Perhaps gather more information or perspectives regarding an incident? Are you having a conversation where someone is upset about something? Maybe the person just needs to vent, or perhaps they are just seeking your moral support or sympathy. Or is the person bringing a complaint to you, as an authority figure, for you to act on? Taking a moment to understand the purpose of the conversation can help you to identify which listening skills to employ.
Using Questions Effectively
Just as you should consider different forms of listening, different kinds of questions can elicit new information. Open-ended questions can help uncover additional dimensions of what is being presented. Asking “Why?” or “How would that work?” or saying, “Tell me more about …” provides space for the responding person to share relevant information and often elicits information you would not have known about or pursued. In contrast, when your queries are leading, you may find you wind up hearing what you want to hear rather than what the person is really trying to say. For example, asking someone “Will you do x?” is seeking a yes or no answer, not requesting an opinion or input on the matter.
Take care not to “weaponize” your questions. Other people often experience skeptical or openly adversarial questions as an attack or “gotcha!” moment. Strive to be genuinely curious in the way you ask questions. For example: “I’m trying to understand how we got here; can you walk me through these events?” is a way to gather information neutrally, without making accusations. Asking, “What were you thinking when you did x?” immediately puts the person on the defensive.
Asking follow-up questions, rather than just reacting to what you are hearing, can encourage effective conversation. They can be a good way to keep a conversation steady and avoid escalation in difficult discussions. Questions like “And then what happened?” or “Can you tell me more about that?” serve not only to elicit more information; they also acknowledge your engagement and presence in the moment with the speaker.
Some people carry an innate aversion against asking “too many” questions -- perhaps because they don’t want to seem annoying or fear looking foolish. While we can all appreciate those concerns, assuming you have enough information and don’t need to ask any further questions can be a recipe for disaster at the other extreme.
Indeed, a fatal error that leaders sometimes commit is to assume that their experience and knowledge have fully prepared them to handle whatever challenges await them in a new situation. They assume they already know the layout, and that what worked before, or in other settings, will work here. Remember, just because the symptoms might look familiar does not mean the underlying problem is the same.
Nonverbal Aspects of Listening
As we noted, body language and facial expressions play an important role in conversations, and they are often overlooked because they operate subconsciously or habitually. In a surprisingly short time span, body language can aid in establishing rapport and trust with another person -- or antagonize them without your even realizing it.
One of the simplest ways to establish rapport with your body language is to mirror your partner’s posture. That doesn’t mean mimicking their every move; it means adopting similar sitting positions, angling your head the same way or using shared styles of speech. Two people in rapport will often exhibit those similarities unconsciously.
The orientation of your shoulders and how your body is positioned can telegraph your level of engagement in a conversation. Are you facing the other person? Angling to the side can give the impression you are not fully focused, not truly listening or perhaps don’t care about the situation. Similarly, your posture signals your level of interest. Slouching and leaning back can make you seem unconcerned or aloof, whereas leaning in too far can come off as intrusive, aggressive or irritated. Crossed arms are often perceived as aloofness and disinterest -- and disagreement.
Not all conversations call for the same body language. For example, if you are discussing data or examining materials, orienting yourself toward them rather than the person you are with can help to keep the conversation on point or de-escalate it when things get tense. Particularly in moments of potential conflict, emphasizing that you and the other person are both interacting with a shared resource can help create a “we/us” as opposed to a “me/you” dynamic.
Finally, your tone of voice signals your mood and attitude. Most of us do not pay enough attention to what we are telegraphing when we speak, and tone of voice is easily misconstrued. Take care to monitor your own tone of voice, particularly when discussions are growing contentious, and recognize its effect on others. Maintaining a calm, steady and rhythmic cadence can help to keep conversations focused, productive and professional.
When you see a colleague in the hallway, practice asking open-ended questions and reflecting back what you hear. The topic doesn’t really matter -- it could be a recent vacation, project idea or a kid off to college. When you are working with colleagues, ask substantive follow-up questions to help you understand their points of view. When someone starts to vent frustrations, practice passive listening; offer support instead of rushing toward a solution. Take time to reflect on your interactions and consider the role your body language and expressions played.
Even people who identify the same issues may have very different views and understandings of their significance and cause. The power of informally and regularly listening, as well as conducting a more formal audit, lies in opening further conversations and the perspectives that can be uncovered through them. You only get that by asking questions, listening carefully when others speak and taking the appropriate follow-up actions when necessary.