Feeling Alienated From Your Team? Here's How To Improve Your Listening Skills

Leaders unable to reflect on their areas for improvement won't be leaders for very long.


"You breathe well," she told me, "but you exhale horribly."

Breathing in deep to fill our lungs requires work, and for optimal performance when exercising, so should the exhale. I realized that unless I could also learn to breathe out all the way down to my diaphragm and pelvic floor, I was missing out on the benefits of this kind of breathing.

Deep breathing is like deep listening — we put in the work to speak, but we need that same effort to hear and understand another point of view. Some leaders listen without hearing because they already assume they know best, but this ends up alienating them from their team. With pandemic uncertainty, workers leaving jobs in droves, and an increasingly competitive marketplace, strong teams are more critical than ever, and allowing poor listening within these teams is risky business.

If you have been a poor listener in the past, here's what you can do to improve those skills and, as a result, your team culture.

Reflect on Yourself First

Just like deep breathing when exercising, some people can go their whole lives without reflecting on their own skills as a listener because they think they know how to do it. To listen is to understand completely, so it has to come from down deep — not through the diaphragm but through honest self-reflection. Listening without putting in the work to understand is a waste of time. If you go into a situation with an idea, stay open to the possibility that your idea can be made better. Leaders unable to reflect on their areas for improvement won't be leaders for very long.

Leaders are people others follow, so set an example for your team. Identify the way that you listen best and make it a habit. For example, I listen better with a pen in my hand, so I can take notes and reinforce what I just heard. Some people may prefer a keyboard, but make sure you feel comfortable with the application you're using so you don't end up troubleshooting glitches instead of listening. Others may just need to maintain eye contact or reflect back on what they heard to confirm their understanding. A leader whose behavior encourages an environment where everyone takes the time to genuinely learn what kind of listener they are and act on it ends up with better collaboration and a more innovative, productive team.

Take a Good Look at Others

When you really listen to others, you can gauge their intentions more clearly and better recognize poor listening skills if they exist. A leader who listens can identify people unable to listen to their peers by watching for behavior that manifests as a lack of respect (toward you or among the group) fracturing your team and breaking it apart. The leader of a fractured group is not leading or accomplishing anything. Instead, let those responsible know they need to reflect and improve their listening skills for the betterment of the team.

A lack of respect is a big sign of a poor listener, but so is fear from others. Early in my career, I joined an organization as the COO, and there was a peer of mine who thought he was dynamite — and so did the ownership team that originally hired him. On the surface, his strong action plan made it seem like he had all the answers. He thought everyone was behind him, but I saw people who were too afraid to voice their criticism or suggestions, which meant they weren't being heard. Fear limited their motivation to act freely and caused them to mistrust their leader. When fear is how a team reacts to someone who can't listen, especially when that someone is a leader, no one else on the team ends up listening either.

Better Listeners Have Better Outcomes

Real listening is about respect, but it also creates more desirable outcomes. When you distinguish yourself as a genuine listener, people are more likely to want to align themselves with your team. Feeling unheard, on the other hand, can make it hard for people to care about the team's success. Taking the time to present ideas and input to a leader is a big effort that deserves the minimum courtesy of being heard and understood. Anything less hurts the team dynamic.

When you really start to hear other people, you also notice the difference in truly being heard. People who believe their leader will never genuinely listen to them end up never listening to their leader. If they know their input will only hit a brick wall, they sit back and wait for their orders to come down the line, decreasing productivity and killing innovation. When people know their voices will be heard, however, they feel confident putting their ideas out there and speaking up when they see areas for improvement.

In the rush of being a business owner, it can be hard to make the time to listen. My son once needed to remind me to listen with my eyes for me to realize that he felt unheard. So, make an effort to pause, make eye contact and show your intention to understand another perspective when talking to others. The more you do it, the more you start to trust that making people feel heard will achieve better outcomes. Just like in exercise, with enough practice, going into each conversation ready to listen becomes as easy as breathing.

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