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What's Your Listening Style? Knowing It Will Make You a Better Leader. The way you communicate can build or break connections. Remember to pause before giving your opinion.

By Aytekin Tank Edited by Jessica Thomas

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

10'000 Hours | Getty Images

"It feels like I'm running on fumes," my colleague Sandra said with a small laugh.

It was my first year building my startup from the ground up, and instead of reading between the lines, I laughed back saying "I hear you. Have you tried a daily exercise routine to give you more energy?"

Sandra just smiled politely and walked away.

That was a pivotal moment for me in realizing that communicating isn't about having a handy reservoir of solutions up your sleeve every time someone shares something they're going through.

I've made my fair share of missteps over the past 16 years of running my business, but one of the most significant solutions has been learning what my listening style is and allowing it to help me build better relationships. Here are some of the lessons I've learned more than a decade later that I hope can help you avoid making the same mistakes.

Related: The Art of Active Listening Requires Leaving Your Ego Behind

Why understanding your listening style is critical to achieving conversation goals

Although most of us as leaders are well-intentioned in our interactions, we often fail to meet another person's needs or address their underlying concerns. According to three researchers writing for Harvard Business Review, "Learning to listen well begins with understanding what type of listener you are."

The researchers outline four distinct styles to help you determine where you fall:

  • The critical listener listens with the intent of judging what the other person is saying and the person themself.
  • The relational listener truly wants to connect and comprehend the emotions behind another person's words.
  • The analytical listener aims to see a person's message from a point of finding solutions (I often fall into this category).
  • The task-focused listener cares most about efficiency and getting all of the relevant facts down.

In their story, the researchers concluded that "developing the ability to shift dynamically between these styles can lead to impactful conversations by matching the speaker's needs with the most appropriate listening technique."

I know that learning to hone my style and adapt to others has helped me both personally and professionally.

Related: How to Harness the Power of Communication When Facing Challenges

Remember to your attention on the other person

Keep your focus on the speaker, not on your immediate response. As tempting as interjecting might be (and we're all a little guilty of this), it's not productive or polite.

Listening with the intent of shifting my focus away from myself has benefited me in many areas of my life. It's helped me understand my kids more and has given me the tools to communicate better with my colleagues and friends. "We often assume that interjecting with our own personal stories is an empathic and relationship-building move, but it precludes hearing the other's whole message," write the HBR researchers.

In other words, if a team member comes to you with a concern, don't immediately try to share your own experiences going through something similar — this brings the conversation back to you. Instead, pay close attention to what they're trying to convey, and try to understand the meaning behind their words.

Listening helps build trust

"Listening isn't all about gaining new information," writes Entrepreneur contributor Anna Johansson. "It's also a useful indicator of the health of your relationships."

Something important for me in creating a culture of openness is sitting down with my employees individually and truly listening to their thoughts, ideas and opinions. I've seen how vital this has been for creating strong connections. And Johansson agrees with me. "Do this regularly, and you'll establish a greater rapport with all your workers. They'll learn to trust you more, and they'll know you value their ideas, which will keep them dedicated to you and your company."

It all comes down to making the other person feel valued.

Related: The 3 Skills You Need to Build Better Customer Relationships

Listening comes down to awareness

I've now spent more than a decade honing and refining the way I communicate, and what I've learned is this: Listening well is one of your greatest resources for ensuring a thriving culture and company growth.

When people feel heard and seen, they're more productive, more motivated and feel free to share more openly. All of this ultimately impacts your success — but it takes intention and effort.

Try to understand your listening style and increase your awareness about how you can make it work for you.

As the HBR researchers recommend, "Taking a couple of seconds to pause and think before an automatic response may help reveal a subtler, important opportunity." In my humble opinion, this means we need to pause before offering immediate feedback. We need to be aware of what the other person's conversational goals are — and yes, this involves trying to read between the lines.

For me, this has meant asking them questions rather than giving unsolicited advice or personal anecdotes.

The bottom line: Always be willing to adapt

"Experimenting with how we listen solidifies our active partnership in conversations," the HBR co-authors write. "It expands the space for others to reveal what really matters to them and can actually be more efficient if we can get to the heart of the matter more deliberately."

As an entrepreneur and CEO of hundreds of employees, I've found this to be true.

Even if we go into a conversation thinking it's about one thing, it can actually be about something completely unrelated. In the case of my colleague Sandra, saying she was running on fumes relayed an underlying concern about burnout, not simply being a bit tired from a project. And these are things that we as leaders need to address appropriately.

To problem-solve, we have to have a true understanding of how we build relationships.

Related: Why Good Listening Is a Critical Skill for Founders and Entrepreneurs

Aytekin Tank

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

Entrepreneur; Founder and CEO, Jotform

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the author of Automate Your Busywork. Tank is a renowned industry leader on topics such as entrepreneurship, technology, bootstrapping and productivity. He has nearly two decades of experience leading a global workforce.

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