I have spoken to many leaders and the consensus is that
listening to the answer is more important than asking the
perfect question. Listening intently builds trust between
you and the speaker. With that in mind, here are some tips to
improve your listening:

1. Don’t let your mind wander. Zen masters can keep
their minds completely focused on one thought or
conversation, but most of us can not. We might, for
instance, latch onto one piece of information that the
speaker has said. We grip it tightly and plan our response,
rather than simply bookmarking this information and
continuing to listen. In doing so, the speaker will see in
our eyes that we have tuned out. Trust, confidence, and
motivation will spiral downward.

2. Don’t interrupt after asking a question. Leaders often
have Type-A personalities, so they want to complete
others’ sentences. In all likelihood, they could probably
do a better job of relaying the information, but that is
not the goal of listening. Out-thinking your subordinates
or showing off is not leadership. Patience is. Allow the
speaker all the time in the world to provide you with an
answer and to ask follow-up questions. Doctors at the
renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota pride
themselves on spending a lot of time listening to their
patients. Many practitioners ask questions and filter
out most of what the patient says (listening only for
symptoms they believe to be present), paying little mind
to the patients’ questions. Those questions can be very
revealing especially if the patient is suffering from a rare
disorder. Good doctors and good leaders have patience
and make better decisions as a result.

3. Don’t ask a question then give an answer to see if you
were right. I was in a coaching exercise with a CEO. He
summoned his accountant and asked her, “What are our
revenue and net profits going to be this year?” Before
she could answer, he said, “$5 million and $1 million
respectfully.” He clearly wanted to demonstrate that he
was aware of the numbers to me and to her. This was
about ego and it did nothing to build his leadership
within the organization. Each time we do one of our
team members’ jobs our leadership power is taken away.
What’s her incentive to try to answer his questions in the
future? Wasn’t he communicating that her time must not
be valuable if she was going to be called into the office
just so he could ask and answer his own question? Does
she now think he has nothing better to do with his time?
Actually, these are not assumptions. This is what I
discovered when I spoke with her afterward.

4. Be attuned to body language-your own and the speaker’s.
Maintain eye contact. Sit up straight and lean forward.
Don’t communicate disinterest or impatience by tapping a
pen against the desk. And try to pick up on nonverbal cues
that the speaker is transmitting. John Urban, Former CEO,
President and Chairman of Pioneer Hi-Bred International
looks for “Dissonance.” When there is a disagreement or a
gap between the work that was performed and the work that
was expected to be performed, he pays particular attention
to body language-failure to make eye contact, lowered or
trailing off voices, etc. He then tries to imagine the question
the speaker least wants him to ask. Then he asks it.

Interestingly, John finds it easier to listen for dissonance and ask
the right questions if the organization’s vision, plan, and goals
are clear. It makes sense. After all, if you know what key the
symphony is in, it is much easier to detect a wrong note.

If you follow these four tips, you will be a good listener. And
you will be pleasantly surprised to find out how prepared you
subordinates are for their meeting with you.

Author's Bio: 

Gary B. Cohen
Founder and Executive Coach

In 1987 Gary co-founded a company with $4,000 in start-up money. Over the years the company grew from 2 to 2200 employees. During the start-up phase Gary and his business partner hired a consultant to guide them through the process. Though the consultant charged more money than the two partners were making at the time, they made the investment because they recognized the value of expert advice.

Gary is convinced ACI Telecentrics, Inc. never would have become the 25th largest call center outsourcer in the United States without the consultant’s help.

After 18 years of leading a company in an industry that went from go-go to no-go, Gary has experienced the entire corporate lifecycle and weathered the constant up-and-down transitions. “City Business,” a Minneapolis/St. Paul publication, distinguished Gary as one of their “40 under 40” award winners.

Besides serving on the board for ACI Telecentrics, Gary has been a board member of 9 different corporations, ranging from non-profit organizations to financial institutions.

The insight gained from real-world experience gives him a true understanding of the issues other entrepreneurs are working to resolve. Gary has the skills and the empathy to guide his clients through the pitfalls of entrepreneurial leadership.

Gary received his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota and attended Harvard Business School. He has participated in several leadership programs at institutions including the Covey Leadership Center and Disney University and the Aspen Institute as a Crown fellow.

Gary is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota