Speak? No, Evil!

How strong leaders use active listening. Empathy—not strength, not confidence—is emerging as the most important leadership tool.

How strong leaders use active listening. Empathy—not strength, not confidence—is emerging as the most important leadership tool.

Understanding the ultimate leadership tool

Modern leadership training at big companies like Pixar focuses more on helping managers learn to listen to their employees, rather than how to speak to them.

And this attitude is steadily trickling down to all levels of the workplace. The technique being taught most is called active listening, and it is being widely embraced across many industries and leadership training programs. This skill set emphasizes openness and operating free from judgment.

Too often, in both our careers and our personal lives, business meetings or conversations turn into competitions. While one person speaks, others frequently aren’t listening, rather merely awaiting their turn to talk. Or, instead of accepting another’s contributions to the conversation, we counter or criticize. Neither works in the professional world.

In active listening, the most important aspect of all is empathizing with others. To do this, we acknowledge and reinforce what others say, and help them feel as though they are heard and are valued contributors.

By redirecting one’s focus from thinking only about what you are going to say or how you appear to making what others say a priority, you can be more present in the moment.

As a result, your interactions grow richer as all sides feel respected and heard.

Five small ways to make a big change

Forget about extensive courses in business communication, or spending years of your life training as a public speaker: active listening is a simple philosophy.

Anyone who puts their mind to it can easily integrate the main tenets into their career and personal life.

Establish positive body language and remove distractions: put the phone or laptop away, maintain consistent eye contact. Use non-verbal cues (such as nodding) to let others know you are present.

Shut down your internal dialogue and withhold judgment: a key pillar of empathy is not making others feel judged. Resist the urge to formulate your own responses immediately.

Reaffirm and restate: take what you’ve just heard and repeat it back to the speaker to show that you have heard and understood. Ask gentle questions to tease out more detail and confirm your interest in learning more.

Cooperate, don’t compete: great communicators participate in a shared give and take—they don’t simply monopolize the discourse.

Finally, share your contribution, then back to the beginning: once the other person has been heard and understood, now you can add in your thoughts, ideas or experience. Rinse and repeat as the conversation continues.

These basic principles of active listening can help anyone improve their communication skills in any environment. This can improve not only how others see you, but how you learn and retain information. The act of restating and asking questions helps your brain process and lock in information. Seeking to empathize with other points of view can also help overcome subconscious biases and eliminate unproductive mental shortcuts.

Keep your focus on humility—putting others before ourselves in an interaction—and empathy—working to connect with others’ emotions and ideas.

Putting it together to be ‘good in the room’

When we think of being ‘good in the room,’ we often default to a romanticized notion of a boardroom pitch meeting.

If we expand our definition, there are scores more ‘rooms:’ small collaboration spaces, elevators, at dinner with friends, Skype meetings, one-on-one phone calls, emails, text messages, Slack channels—the list is endless. In terms of being a good communicator, each of these situations is as important as all others. With careful application of active listening, humility and empathy, anyone can engender trust in all situations.

Maybe your ultimate goal is a new business relationship not won through Powerpoint, but through one-on-one interactions that show decision-makers at other companies that you and your organization can be counted on as partners.

Or maybe it’s as simple as making someone important to you feel like they’ve been heard and appreciated today. That can be as big a win as any.