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: 

As President and Co-founder of ACI Telecentrics, Inc., Gary Cohen grew the company from two people to 2,000 employees and reached $32 million in sales in 2004, his final year. Currently, he is Partner and Co-founder of CO2 Partners, LCC, operating as an executive coach and consultant. Gary received his B.S. from the University of Minnesota, where he triple-majored in International Business, Intercultural Communications, and International Political Science. Prior to graduating from Harvard Business School, he attended Covey Leadership Center and Disney Creative Leadership workshops. He has served on numerous boards, including Outward Bound National Advisory Board, Alzheimer Board of Governors, American Teleservices Association, and TEC (The Executive Committee). He has written articles for Wall Street Reporter, Venture Magazine, Inc. Magazine, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Profits Journal, and others. Among his many accomplishments, he was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award Finalist (Inc. Magazine) and Henry Crown Fellow (Aspen Institute); in addition, ACI was recognized as one of Venture Magazine’s Top 10 Best Performing Businesses and Business Journal’s 25 Fastest Growing Small Public Companies. Gary has been quoted in USA Today, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and many other publications.