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You Listened… but Did You Hear?

By Paige Kassalen

Being a strong listener is a skill any great leader needs to master. It can be easy to mistake being a good listener with just talking less than the rest of the group, but it’s more complicated than that. To be a strong listener, you need to digest the information the person said and, more importantly, hear the additional details they provided with their comment.

If someone uses judgmental language to describe something, it could be a sign of an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. If someone constantly brings up a topic that is not a priority, try to figure out how they became misaligned with the team. If someone voices a concern that you don’t think is a problem, explore where you might have a blind spot that you need to be more aware of.

When you listen — and actually hear — you become a better leader, because you are able to understand the broader group’s perspective, instead of just your own.

To transition from someone who just listens to someone who actually hears, we have to change the way we approach day-to-day communication. We can start by implementing this process:

1. Focus on One Thing at a Time

Imagine wanting to discuss a serious topic with a close friend, and a few minutes into talking through the important details, they pull out their cell phone. What feeling does that provoke? At that point, you probably would shut down and stop talking from the heart because you know you are not being heard.

We are all guilty of trying to multitask — texting during conversations, reading emails during meetings, working on a presentation while listening to a virtual conference.

If we are trying to focus on multiple things at one time, we can say we are still listening, but there is no way we can truly hear.

Focusing on only one thing at a time creates the environment needed for open communication. Just like in the scenario above, if we don’t create this environment, then we shut down opportunities to truly hear. Without these opportunities, we aren’t allowing others to provide the key information needed to help us become better leaders.

2. Resist the Urge to Be Defensive

When someone vocalizes a problem or brings up a controversial question, the last thing that person wants to hear is something that implies they are wrong. They brought up this concern for a reason, so we need to pause and think about what that reason could be.

Now the challenge is, just like that person doesn’t want to be told they are wrong, we don’t want to be told we are wrong, either. This is why we get defensive.

Before providing an answer, we need to take a step back and hear what they are saying. The person made a comment based on their viewpoint or level of understanding, and this insight provides us with a better understanding of an audience’s knowledge base or sentiment. With this information, we can understand our gaps in leadership and opportunities for improvement.

3. Follow Up to Get More Information:

This article has focused on the idea that when you listen… and actually hear, you become a better leader because you are more aware of what is going on in your organization. This concept is not complete without this final point, though.

Leaders must be emotionally intelligent and read situations to reach the best outcome, but they cannot read people’s minds, spend their days hyper-analyzing the language choice someone used, or make business decisions based on “signals” they felt during conversations.

This is why this final point is so important. Before taking any action, you need to give people an opportunity to confirm what you heard and then work towards a solution together, if needed.

Someone once called me into a meeting and said, “I know you said you had everything under control, but you were sending off a signal you weren’t confident.” I quickly became frustrated that instead of just listening to the words coming from my mouth, this person tried to uncover a secret message that did not exist.

On the flip side, I’ve been in situations where I could feel some tension on a call, so afterwards I followed up with my colleagues in case they wanted to talk through anything, and they were very happy I did.

Your biggest strength as a leader is not to make the right assumptions or always read people correctly. Instead, your biggest strength is to understand when it is appropriate to set up some time for a follow-up conversation to understand if any action is needed by you as a leader.

Every conversation is an opportunity to learn something new, and gain the necessary information to become a better leader. We need to capitalize on these moments by being present and focusing on only one thing at a time. We need to keep an open mind and be ready to learn instead of being defensive. Finally, we need to create opportunities for follow-up conversations when we sense that a conversation needs more attention.

Being a strong listener will always be a high-value skill, and we can take that skill to the next level by making sure we are truly hearing the information being provided.

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Paige Kassalen

Paige Kassalen has an electrical engineering degree from Virginia Tech and a Master of Information Systems Management from Carnegie Mellon. Kassalen began her career as the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Teen Vogue, and Fast Company. Since Solar Impulse, Kassalen worked in the manufacturing and finance industries to create implementation strategies for a range of emerging technology trends from autonomous vehicles to machine learning. She was the Chief Operating Officer at CrowdAI, a start-up named by Forbes as one of the most promising AI companies in 2021. CrowdAI was acquired by Saab, Inc. in 2023, and Kassalen now serves as the Chief of Staff for the strategy division.

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