This Important Leadership Skill Isn't Hard to Master, But Most Don't Do It

Here are seven ways for leaders to actively listen and connect with what others have to say.

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By Stacey Hanke

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Active listening is a vastly underappreciated skill. Research suggests that because we hear speech at a rate of 500-1000 words per minute, and only speak 125-175 words per minute, it's easy to become bored, distracted and inattentive. Speaking to others may be considered easy by most; yet, many struggle with how to effectively listen. Studies indicate people spend between 70 percent and 80 percent of their day engaged in some form of communication, and over half that time is devoted to listening.

Related: 15 Ways to Lead With Effective Communication

Active listening isn't particularly difficult, rather many have failed to develop the habits necessary to become successful in doing so. Active listening is the difference in hearing someone speak versus connecting with what they have to say. It builds trust, strengthens relationships and creates credibility. By becoming an active listener, you encourage others to open up while expressing concepts, ideas and opinions more thoroughly.

In order to make active listening habit, consistently practice these seven actions:

1. Maintain concentrated focus.

More often than not, the average listener is preoccupied in her own thoughts as she waits for a turn to speak. By taking the time to observe others in conversation, you're likely to witness individuals competing for attention and an opportunity to turn the focus on themselves rather than connecting to what the other has to say.

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In order to maintain concentrated focus on the speaker, keep natural eye contact, connecting with their eyes and facial expressions. Refrain from judgment and feedback until you've heard the entirety of the conversation. Avoid distractions that challenge your ability to remain focused. Remove any technology that has the potential to interrupt, such as phones and laptops. Most of all remain patient.

When you connect with another person and focus on her words, she's subconsciously encouraged to continue sharing. Demonstrate patience as she speaks, allowing her to detail various aspects of her message. This concentrated focus on her words and body language will help you better interpret her message and set the stage for an open dialogue.

2. Remain in the moment.

Active listening is the desire to hear and retain what someone is trying to convey. Some research shows people only remember 25 percent to 50 percent of what is heard, meaning we pay attention to less than half of what is said in conversation.

Related: How to Know If You're a Bad Listener (And How to Fix It)

To boost your ability to retain conversational details, remain in the moment and refrain from formulating a response in your head. Instead of considering your own experiences, keep your mind clear of thought and reflection when another person is speaking. Encourage him to continue sharing by using words of encouragement such as "go on" and "I see." These types of phrases promote conversation continuation and reveal more details than the speaker originally considered. Not only does this demonstrate respect, but it allows you to hear the bigger message.

3. Stay silent.

Wait until the other person is completely done sharing her thought before speaking. Allow a brief pause or moment to consider her entire thought before formulating your response. While remaining silent and not interrupting is important in active listening, you do not need to remain free of reaction. Facial expressions, body language and hand gestures can convey your feelings on the topic without ever having to say a word.

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4. Repeat or paraphrase.

Demonstrate concentrated, active listening by repeating what the other person says or paraphrasing the general idea he is sharing. This will convey you are connected with his message and build credibility in you as a listener. Repeating or paraphrasing also gives the speaker permission to continue expanding upon his words or thoughts, revealing more details to his conversation.

5. Ask open-ended questions.

Asking questions is often necessary to further understand what another is trying to truly say. Ask open-ended questions that allow the speaker to reveal more details to the situation and enlighten you more on the topic. For example, instead of asking: "Has this situation been going on long?" ask, "How long as this situation been going on?" A simple yes or no answer isn't enough to shed further light on the conversation; rather, asking open ended questions give the speaker permission to elaborate.

Related: 5 Things Beauty Brands Can Teach You About Active Listening to Ensure Growth

6. Listen for intent.

Words only convey a portion of what's being said while facial expressions, body language and vocal tonality complete it. Be purposeful in listening for emotions behind words. Attempt to understand what the speaker is saying, and perhaps, not saying. Consider sharing your perceptions of his feelings to ensure you fully understand the correct intent.

In the course of many conversations, speakers will gloss over a topic that they consider to be sensitive or highly emotional. Asking them to elaborate on their feeling of a situation or expand further on a thought will help reveal their true feelings on the subject. Not only is this helpful in giving you context, it can provide clarity the speakers themselves may have missed.

Related: The 4 Levels of Listening: Why Every Good Entrepreneur Should Talk Less

7. Demonstrate empathy.

Active listening demonstrates concern for others, and fosters cohesive bonds, commitment and trust. It can reduce the frequency of interpersonal conflict while increasing the odds of a quick resolution when conflicts should arise. A study published in The International Journal of Listening concluded that "listening is considered to be the single most important communication skill necessary, even valued more highly than speaking, for leaders in the business world."

Follow-up and follow-through are critical components demonstrating empathy through active listening. Incorporating the feedback expressed in conversations, implementing changes and promises to others in conversation can demonstrate a leader's ability to listen with empathy.

Active listening isn't easy, requiring discipline, strength of focus and a commitment to execute in every conversation. By putting forth the effort to connect with what others have to say, you will build trust, deepen relationships and create a sense of credibility in you as a peer, leader and confidant.

Related Video: Listen, Be More Mindful and Slow Down

Stacey Hanke

CEO of Stacey Hanke Inc.

Stacey Hanke is author of "Influence Redefined…Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be, Monday to Monday." She is the founder of Stacey Hanke Inc. and has presented to Coca-Cola, FedEx, Nationwide, Fannie Mae and McDonald’s. She has been featured on The New York Times, Forbes and SmartMoney.

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