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Active Listening Techniques for CEOs and Senior Executives

Active listening

Active Listening Techniques for CEOs and Senior Executives

Active listening at the C-suite level is a strategic communication skill that increases your leadership effectiveness by ensuring clear understanding, greater trust, and a fostering of positive relationships. It requires you–the listener–to fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said.

This skill is vital in leadership as it aids in decision-making, conflict resolution, and motivating team members. Active listening encourages open dialogue, drives innovation, and aligns organizational goals by ensuring that leaders truly hear and understand the concerns and ideas of their stakeholders.

While the buck may stop with you, effective communication is a two-way street. Business leaders who pride themselves on the transparent messaging coming from their offices also have to keep their doors open when employees come knocking with their own ideas and frustrations. Top performers who don’t feel heard will jump at the first opportunity to join a company where they do have a voice — and where they feel senior leadership truly listens.

At your next executive meeting, set aside some time to discuss how these four active listening techniques could help you and your leaders improve the dialogue at every level of your company.

1. Be mindful.

“Mindfulness” expert Jon Kabat-Zinn defines the term as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Just about every word in that definition is a challenge to how most leaders spend their days and interact with subordinates. The higher you rise in an organization, the more your responsibilities can divide your attention and accelerate your movement from one task to the next. The pressure to act decisively can also make leaders feel like they’re constantly passing judgment.

But your direct reports shouldn’t feel like they’re items on a checklist that you’re trying to get through as quickly as possible. And if your employees feel everything they say and do is under a microscope, your workplace will turn into a pressure cooker.

Whether you’re prepping for a scheduled face-to-face or bumping into a new employee who needs five minutes:

  1. Just do this. Remind yourself that you are an executive. You are in charge of your time. You do, indeed, have time for this interaction. Don’t check your email. Don’t start thinking about your next meeting.
  2. Go screen-free. Silence and pocket your phone, step away from your computer. You’re the boss, the person you’re talking too will do likewise.
  3. Control your space. Your discussion space should be quiet and private. Put some nice chairs in a corner of your office, away from your desk. Ban phones and computers from the conference room, unless they’re necessary for a presentation. If there’s too much energy in the office today, take the person you’re talking to on a walk around the block or buy them a cup of coffee.

Under these mindful conditions, active listening might happen almost automatically. Everyone involved will be much better attuned to the details and nuances of what’s being discussed. There will be room in the conversation for silence and contemplation rather than rapid reactions, which could lead to more thoughtful decisions. And each party will leave the conversation feeling heard and respected, even if other voices won out.

2. Be empathetic.

Although they are often used interchangeably, “empathy” and “sympathy” are different emotional responses. Sympathy is being aware of and acknowledging someone else’s feelings. Empathy is sharing in another’s emotional experience.

So, a sympathetic leader might feel sorry “for” an employee who feels passed over for a promotion, or a customer service rep who stuck to their script but still lost an important customer.

An empathetic leader goes further. You might schedule a one-on-one meeting with that employee who’s worried their career is stalling and help them create an action plan to improve their competencies and earn the job they want — even if it’s at another organization. You could publicly recognize your customer support team for maintaining the company’s high service standards and values even during a difficult customer interaction.

In other words, rather than being sympathetic “for,” be empathetic “with.” Don’t just hear the other person’s words, actively listen for the emotional undercurrents and pay attention to non-verbal cues. Remind an obviously nervous person that they’re in a safe space. Try to diffuse some of the tension that’s creasing an angry person’s brow. Maintain eye contact. Nod to acknowledge that you’re actively listening and encourage more emotional honesty. Use phrases like, “That must have been really hard for you” or “I understand” to affirm what the speaker said.

Empathy builds trust, which builds the kinds of strong relationships that sustain a company through good times and bad. Show your people you truly care and they’ll care more about doing exceptional work to realize your BIG vision.

3. Ask questions.

Once everyone has spoken, reflective questioning can be a great way to start moving the conversation forward. Summarizing what you’ve heard confirms to others that you’ve been actively listening, while also providing an opportunity for more details. For example: “So, what I’m hearing you say is that … Correct?” This can help to align understanding while also encouraging further dialogue that can provide even more clarity and understanding.

Next, move on to open-ended questions like “Why?” and “How?” that can be particularly effective if you’re troubleshooting. These simple questions can move the discussion beyond surface-level issues and knee-jerk emotional responses. It’s down in these specific details that leaders identify long-ignored inefficiencies, cultural defects, and even overlooked opportunities. You’ll also be able to form a more complete picture of what led to successes or failures, and what lessons the company should carry forward.

On the other hand, if you use follow-up questions to try to steer the conversation toward your preferred outcome, you risk undoing all the trust and mutual empathy you’ve been trying to build. Avoid words like “But …” and phrases like “Are you sure you don’t mean …” that only serve your own biases and preconceptions. Rather than directing the final part of a conversation, you want to create room for all speakers to provide input and arrive at a mutually beneficial conclusion.

4. Follow through and follow up.

The true measure of how well you actively listen depends on what you do once the conversation is over. Feeling heard in the moment isn’t going to mean much to your team if you and your leaders don’t follow through by implementing suggestions, correcting problems, and maintaining high standards of accountability. And if you don’t circle back to check on people, they might think your concern was inauthentic.

Top talent is your most valuable asset. Give each team member the attention they deserve and your company will understand itself better, work more efficiently, and Make BIG Happen together.

About CEO Coaching International

CEO Coaching International works with CEOs and their leadership teams to achieve extraordinary results quarter after quarter, year after year. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 1,000 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries and 45 industries. The coaches at CEO Coaching International are former CEOs, presidents, or executives who have made BIG happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $10 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight, nine, and ten-figure exits. Companies working with CEO Coaching International for two years or more have experienced an average EBITDA CAGR of 53.5% during their time as a client, more than three times the U.S. average, and a revenue CAGR of 26.2%, nearly twice the U.S. average.

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