June 29 2009 09:34 AM

The famous psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, "Man's inability to communicate is a result of his failure to listen effectively.•bCrLf When I teach leadership workshops, one of the exercises is to ask participants to think about the greatest manager they had and to name the characteristics or traits that were outstanding. In hundreds of workshops with over 1,000 leaders, one attribute comes up every time—a good listener.

I witnessed a CEO recently "listening•bCrLf to an employee who requested a short meeting. I observed the CEO look at his BlackBerry five times, take one phone call, stare at the stock ticker on his computer, get interrupted by an assistant and make gestures to people walking by his windowed office. This was in less than 10 minutes. How do you think that employee felt about the conversation? Did this conversation facilitate trust and motivate that employee to be more productive, or did it perpetuate an attitude of resignation and apathy? How do you feel when you are not heard? Peter Nulty wrote, "Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable.•bCrLf How good a listener are you? Here are some suggestions on becoming a better listener.

In grade school we were taught to stop, look and listen before crossing the street. When a person begins a conversation with you, this slogan can be useful to remember. Stop what you are doing and look to see if you can speak with that person and give your attention. If not, schedule a time when you can. Listen to what the other person is saying and stop listening to your internal conversations — you know, that little voice in your head that is saying, "I don't have time for this•bCrLf or "What now?•bCrLf Peter Senge told us in his book The Fifth Discipline, "To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the 'music,' but to the essence of the person speaking.•bCrLf This means to listen to the person's feelings, the situation, and the urgency. Is she/he angry, afraid, panicked, or confused? Is this a request for help or an announcement of a task completed? To ensure that you heard the speaker, summarize what the person said and check for agreement. For example, "So, in summary, I heard you say that••bCrLf Then check you got it all by asking, "Is there anything else?•bCrLf

Notice that listening while thinking about how you are going to respond is different than listening with the intention to understand. If you are thinking, "You should do this or that and I will tell you when you stop talking,•bCrLf you likely will miss something. Stephen Covey's habit #5 is, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood.•bCrLf How long can you listen before you suggest a solution? 

Robert Cooper of Executive EQ reminds us that listening is not about faking it. "Many 'active listening' seminars are, in actuality, little more than a shallow theatrical exercise in appearing like you're paying attention to another person. The requirements: Lean forward, make eye contact, nod, grunt, or murmur to demonstrate you're awake and paying attention, and paraphrase something back every 30 seconds or so. As one executive I know wryly observed, many inhabitants of the local zoo could be trained to go through these motions, minus the paraphrasing."

Top Tips
My advice for being a better manager: stop, look, and listen. An exercise I do at workshops is have two people role-play a conversation in which one is the employee and the other is the manager. The manager is allowed only to ask questions, not make any statements or suggestions. The feedback I hear from managers is how difficult they find it to hold back and simply listen. Sometimes, they discover that the problem initially named is not the real problem. Other times, they see the employee come up with his or her own solution to the problem. Try it yourself, and see what you learn.

Mark is the Chairman of a New York City think tank composed of CEOs focused on "outperforming•bCrLf their competition. He is with Vistage International, the world's leading chief executive organization. He applies his 30 years of experience as an accomplished CEO & corporate manager towards increasing the effectiveness and enhancing the lives of CEOs. Mark holds a MBA from the University of Phoenix and is a graduate of the Coaching and Organizational Learning Program through George Mason University. He can be reached at (212) 867-5849 or mark.taylor@vistage.com.