Peter Drucker famously said ‘the most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said’. Noticing what a person isn’t saying is a characteristic of listening at a really deep level. I don’t know anybody – even professional skilled listeners, who listen at that level all of the time. But could you tune in to a person at that level if you wanted to?

I worked with one CEO who was an exceptionally skilled listener. I remember the first conversation I had with him. I was intentionally avoiding talking about something. But he picked up on it quickly and asked me what was going on. We had a really honest chat after that and our future conversations went that way. He was tough. I prepared for all our meetings. I knew he would miss nothing.

In all aspects of business, listening is undoubtedly a valuable skill to master. In most workplaces it can be hard to be heard. Often leaders feel it is safer to control conversations than hear something that they might not want to hear.

Listening takes time and attention – both of which can be in short supply at work. Personality preference is a significant factor. Those with a preference for extraversion feel comfortable holding the conversation and ‘thinking out loud’.

In 2013 Stanford University and the Miles Group carried out research with 200 CEOs. The research explored attitudes of CEOs and boards to coaching and getting leadership advice. CEOs and boards rated listening the third most important skill they need to continue developing. However in terms of skills CEOs were actually working on, listening was ranked fifth.

So here are some tips to improve your listening skills:

  • Become aware of your listening habits

Are there times of the day or week when you are more distracted and less likely to tune into important conversations? Do you find particular individuals easier to listen to? What makes that so? If you don’t want to listen, what tactics do you employ?

  • Audit your Listening skills (see below)

Which of the seven levels of listening below is your default level? Does it change depending on the topic or individual(s) you are speaking to?

  • Make small changes

Pick one individual or one meeting. Aim to listen up a level or two compared to your default. Notice what happens. Often when we want to improve skills, we try to do too much in too short a time. Dramatically changes in behaviour attract more attention and can make us, and others,  feel uncomfortable. Small changes over time can have a powerful effect.

Listening Skills Audit: What level are you listening at?

Listening Skills Audit: What level are you listening at?