“When you speak, you repeat what you know. When you listen, you learn something new.”  – Dalai Lama

What differentiates an average manager from a great leader? The answer often encompasses soft skills — such as active listening — which facilitate a leader’s ability to connect with employees.

Healthy communication between leaders and team members establishes a foundation for trust. When your team members know that they will be heard, they are more apt to openly share their ideas and provide honest feedback. This, in turn, drives employee engagement and positive business outcomes including innovation, productivity and profitability.

Listening Takes Time

Active listening enhances leaders connection with team

One common complaint among employees is that they felt that their bosses didn’t have — or take — the time to talk with them. A recent poll of U.S. workers revealed that 91 percent of employees identified “communication issues” as a pain point with their bosses. “Not having time to meet with employees” was cited by an overwhelming 52 percent of respondents as an issue that interfered with effective leadership.

As a leader, you’re pulled in many directions throughout the day. While it may seem like you don’t have time, making the time to listen to your team members has the potential to increase your leadership capacity exponentially as you gain insights, consider new ideas and receive valuable feedback.

But Are You Really Listening?

Another survey was more direct at pinpointing “doesn’t listen” as the #2 complaint that employees have about their bosses. In other words, they’re not feeling heard. What differentiates listening from active listening?

There is a profound difference between listening to music in the background while doing something else versus putting on headphones and actively listening to it with your undivided attention, as Graham D. Bodie, an associate professor of communication studies at Louisiana State University, explains.

Bodie, who studies listening, says that actively listening to a person involves the mastery of “immediacy behaviors.” These verbal and non-verbal cues let the other person know you are available, ready to pay attention and interested in what they are saying.

Make eye contact for active listening

These Cues Include:

Minimizing distractions (at the office that might mean finding a setting away from the computer screen, or turning off the ringer on your cell phone)

  • Making eye contact
  • Reflecting the other person’s feelings with appropriate statements — e.g., “That must have been difficult” or “Sure sounds stressful”
  • Using “minimal encouragers,” which are subtle verbal (such as “right” or “mmm hmmm”) and non-verbal (nodding your head) signals that let the person know you are listening and urge them to continue talking

Active Listening at Work

As a strategy to improve leadership skills, active listening can encourage stronger communication between you and your team members. While the roots of active listening are in therapeutic settings, it has practical applications in the workplace as well, given appropriate parameters. The objective of active listening is to fully understand the message, including any feelings beyond the spoken word that may be conveyed nonverbally.

Related: Listening From Multiple Perspectives: An Essential Leadership Skill

In a workplace setting, it makes sense for a leader to summarize (“I understand your frustration with this situation, Maggie”) and to respond accordingly (“I will give this some thought and get back to you with my answer by Friday”).

Knowing that their leader cares about and appreciates them makes each team member feel valued as an individual, and is an important factor in driving employee engagement.

What other strategies have you found helpful to improve leadership skills around listening?