Much is talked about the qualities of a good leader or entrepreneur. For example, they should be able to motivate their team, be able to delegate efficiently, be able to think creatively, solve problems quickly and so on. When a leading magazine once asked Virgin Founder Richard Branson what it takes to be a good leader, he said one should be a good listener. “If you want to stand out as a leader, a good place to begin is by listening,” he said. “Great listeners are often terrific at uncovering and putting in place strategies and plans that have a big impact.”
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Building a business, much like Branson put it, is about building relationships, and good communication skills lie at the core of this. One of the most common misconceptions is that having good communication skills means being able to put your ideas across efficiently. It is sometimes forgotten that knowing when not to speak is as important as when to do so. Listening is, therefore, a very important part of good communication. According to a UCLA study, 55 percent of the meaning in face-to-face interactions is conveyed nonverbally. Another study conducted at George Washington University showed that listening can influence up to 40 percent of a leader’s job performance.
Eric Sorensen, the Executive Director of a Haiti-based social enterprise that encourages and enables the use of green charcoal, Carbon Roots International, spoke about his personal experience in a recent interview. Being a social enterprise, one of the first lessons that CRI learnt was to stop telling and start listening. He illustrates this with an example. During the first phase of product testing in Haiti, the CRI team was frustrated that people were using their product incorrectly and they were wasting time and effort trying to explain to their customers ‘how to use’ the product. Finally, they decided to stop talking and start listening. They realised that they were only making their side of the story clear instead of listening to their customer’s doubts and questions. They have now started compiling user feedback and addressing customer concerns, which they believe will finally lead to the customer using the product right.
Most leaders are not just outspoken and charismatic, they also take the time to listen to what their employees, customers and other stakeholders have to say. This way, they will be in a position to anticipate problems before they surface as they would be tuned into situations better. Listening to someone’s opinion means you are respecting them and their thoughts, and that you care for them. This will gain you a loyal customer and staff base, ensuring smooth communication channels within and outside the organisation. By listening, you can work with your employees and customers on their feedback and complaints to create a better all-round employee/customer experience. Listening also ensures fewer chances of misinterpretation and miscommunication because you are listening to the other person attentively before communicating your own message.
Research suggests that during the 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours that we spend communicating, we write nine percent of the time, we read 16 percent, speak 30 percent and listen 45 percent of the time. Yet, not all of us are great listeners. Some of us are too distracted by our own thoughts while others are too busy trying to impose meanings on the other person’s thought before they even finish expressing it. Now that it is clear why one needs to be a good listener, let’s find out how one can brush up their listening skills:
Make eye contact
Look into the eyes of the person you are having a conversation with. It shows them that you are interested in the conversation and are listening to them. According to Adrian Furnham, Founder Director of Applied Behavioural Research Associates, who writes in Psychology Today, gaze plays a crucial role in conversation. “Looking at another person is a way of getting feedback on particular points. It is also used as a synchronising signal,” he says. “People tend to look away when hesitating, talking non-fluently or thinking. There is often mutual eye contact during attempted interruptions, laughing and when answering short questions.” So follow Adrian’s advice and make eye contact to help you focus on the conversation. This will help stop your mind drifting away or preparing what to say next. You will also not miss out important points made by the speaker.
Keep distractions away
Keep that phone away when you are talking to someone. Make sure you are away from such disturbances that might affect your ability to properly listen and understand what the other person is saying. Fidgeting with your phone or paying attention to other nearby things will distract the speaker, too, and it may make them go off-track. You, too, will not understand or may miss out on what is being said, possibly leading to misinterpretation of ideas conveyed. Also, you could encourage the speaker to go on by showing you are listening. This is especially true in the case of phone conversation. Using fillers like “okay” and “I see” will make the speaker understand that you are listening to them.
Do not interrupt
Let the speaker finish their sentences and thoughts fully. Stop interrupting them or making judgements on what they say. Be patient and speak only when the speaker indicates, verbally or nonverbally, that they are done saying their part. Be open to what they are saying. You don’t need to contradict or interrupt and set right if what they are seeing contradicts your beliefs or ideas. You can do that once the other person is done and you have fully understood what they are saying. Stop arguing with the speaker in your head before they are done, this will only hinder further concentration and discussions.
Listening is a skill, and the good news is that it can be developed with practice. Being a good listener will help you empathise more with others, make meaningful relationships, network better, be a good team player and avoid unnecessary miscommunication. All this put together is what leads to every entrepreneur’s success.
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