Leadership

How to use deep listening to really connect with employees

Greg Smith /

leaders listening connecting

Greg Smith, the co-founder of deliberatepractice. Source: Supplied.

Listening is one of the most critical skills leaders must have, and yet, for a variety of reasons, many simply don’t have it.

Unsurprisingly, employees often rate their manager poorly when they fail to listen to their concerns. This is often a source of dissatisfaction and contributes to why talented employees leave.

Leaders need to make time to really hear and understand employee needs and concerns. However, leaders often say that day-to-day workload pressures and deadlines make this unrealistic, causing them to push it down their priority list, which is a highly risky practice for talent retention.

Leader’s need to be sensitive and empathetic to their employees’ various circumstances and avoid judgements. As a reflection of this, employees like their leaders to show a genuine non-judgemental interest in their concerns. 

Take listening to the next level

Leaders should be taking a proactive and ongoing interest in employee development. Listening is a valuable and important tool for leaders and deep listening is the most valuable tool of all for building employee connections.

Leaders should take listening to the next level and be attuned to employees’ verbal and nonverbal cues and be aware of their body language, tone of voice and level of animation when telling their story.

Deep listening can give leaders valuable insights into employee dissatisfaction and overall engagement with the workplace.

Silence is a powerful communication companion of deep listening and another invaluable leadership tool.

Awkward silences are sometimes best allowed to stand. Leaders must resist the temptation to fill in conversation voids and instead just let the silence hang. If the silence endures, and it’s suspected that it holds deeper meaning, leaders can try open and gentle probing questions, such as ‘what’s running through your mind right now?’

Authentic leaders know how to craft open questions such as this, and intuitively know we often don’t even know the question we’ve asked until we have heard the answer to that question!

Make a strong connection  

The pace of transformation of today’s labour market, with rapid advances in technology and the rise of the gig economy, provides a preview of what’s ahead for the future of work. Leaders will need to help guide their employees (and themselves) through the change, so making a strong connection with employees is more important than ever before. 

Many leaders have previously managed to get by with poor listening skills, but that will no longer be possible.

Listening and other soft skills will become increasingly ‘must-have skills’, according to a Deloitte study that predicts by 2030, two-thirds of jobs will be ‘soft-skill intensive’.

Leaders will need to cease judging what their employees say, right or wrong, valid or invalid, important or unimportant, to avoid the risk of misinterpretation.

They also need to leave their own emotions out of the equation. A great place to start is by assuming positive intent and come to the conversation with an open mind.

This is a simple but powerful notion which Indra Nooyi (the former chief of PepsiCo), told Forbes was the best advice she ever got (from her father).

However, many come to meetings and conversations with exactly the opposite approach, suspicious and looking for hidden agendas.

This is not only non-productive but it’s dynamite for building trust and relationships and leaves you wondering why this practice is still so prevalent in leadership behaviours when better and more useful approaches exist.  

Hit the pause button before firing off emails

We have all heard horror stories of people firing off angry emails only to regret it later.

Leaders simply cannot initiate or respond to emails in the heat of the moment. It’s easier and more effective in a volatile situation to pick up the telephone and call the person, or better still, talk to them face-to-face.

Prioritise connecting and development 

In times of great change, leaders have an opportunity to connect with their employees like never before. It’s a time where creativity and innovation often thrive. Being highly attuned to employees’ needs and how these change over time is key, as well as taking a proactive interest in their development.

However, this takes commitment and must be prioritised in a leader’s everyday activity and skill set. 

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Greg Smith

Greg is the co-founder of HR consulting firm deliberatepractice, where he specialises in career development, talent management and organisational leadership. He is also the author of Career Conversations: How to get the best from your talent pool.