In many ways, Adrian Aragon was a great CEO; hard-working and completely devoted to his staff and organization, but it was not until he analyzed his CEO performance review that he noticed the blind spot in his leadership: the gap between how he saw his communication, and how his employees were interpreting it. Committed to becoming a better communicator and more effective leader, Adrian met with an old colleague Ivana Smith, one of the finest leaders and communicators he had ever met. After scrutinizing his report for what seemed like an eternity, Ivana asked Adrian: “Why do you think so many of your employees believe you have a negative mindset and don’t communicate effectively with them?”
Adrian took a moment then muttered, “With all the stress it’s hard to always maintain a positive and enthusiastic attitude.”
Ivana nodded in agreement. “That’s true, being positive when stressed is a real challenge, however doing so will help lower your stress, increase your energy, and make you feel a lot better. It will also help set the tone for your entire company.”
“I guess you’re right. I should probably be more positive.”
“More positive yes, but the real key is to really listen to them. The most important part of communication is effective listening. Most of us are rather disengaged when we listen, but if you can really listen to what your employees are saying you will be able to build more trust and rapport with them, resolve more conflict and connect in a deeper way with them.”
Ivana is right. Effective listening does two things; it ensures that the sender’s communication has been received as intended, and it tells the sender that their communication has value. Employee engagement and listening go hand in hand. There’s an old saying, “Listening is love.” Great listeners are masters at making those they are listening to feel important, and perhaps on some deeper level, loved. To really connect with your staff and make them feel valued you’ll want to move towards empathetic listening.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone you felt just didn’t get anything you said despite their involved contribution to the conversation? You probably sensed their minds were completely focused on what they wanted to say next, and not on absorbing and processing what you were saying. Well, that is disengaged listening, and most of the time although we might be hearing what’s being said, our minds are actually busy thinking about what to say next. Disengaged listening isn’t just responsible for corrupting the communication that’s being received; it leaves the speaker feeling unimportant.
To escape the disengaged listening trap, the next time you are having a conversation with someone begin to notice when your mind either starts to wander from the conversation or is thinking about what to say next. The simple act of bringing awareness to how you listen will make you a much better listener and leave those you communicate with feeling valued.
Engaged listening means listening without judgment, opinions, or preconceived notions. Engaged listening creates a space for others to really express what they are thinking without them feeling like they are being judged. It also ensures they are heard, and that their thoughts and feelings are important to you. You can become a more engaged listener by asking empowering questions; questions that probe, seek clarity, focus on solutions and put the power to solve a problem or challenge into the other person’s hands. For example, “How might you accomplish that?” or “What’s another way of seeing that?”
There is a direct link between employee engagement and how much those employees feel their company values them. Organizations that have created a culture that values its staff by listening to them in an engaged and nonjudgmental way will find its members reciprocating the value and respect they feel by raising their energy and level of engagement while at work. You can become a much more engaged listener by acknowledging and validating the feelings other people express to you the same way Ivana did with Adrian.
This is the highest form of listening and will build strong ties with your employees if you master it.
Empathetic listening is feeling what the other person is feeling through their communication. It includes deciphering body language, reading between the lines, listening for tonal discrepancies, and looking for what’s not being said as much as what’s being said.
Listening at such a high level lets the person who is speaking know that you’ve captured their emotional experience. Although empathetic listening requires considerable focus, effort and concentration, with enough practice it can become routine.
Adrian worked hard at being a more positive and effective communicator. He became a lot less judgmental and shifted his focus from finding problems to finding solutions. Whenever his employees were upset about something he’d acknowledge and validate their feelings. And when they became stuck or frustrated, he’d ask them empowering questions to shift their perspective. He developed more rapport with them, and earned more of their trust, which left them feeling more valued, respected and connected to him. It didn’t take long after that for their own performance and engagement to increase as well.
Ascanio Pignatelli is an employee engagement expert. He is an award winning speaker, seminar leader, coach, and author of the forthcoming book Lead from Need: Raising Employee Engagement from the Core. He is the founder of E3 Solutions, an executive coaching and leadership development group that helps executives develop the leadership and communication skills to create more engaging workplaces.