A friend of mine, a key leader with a major insurance company, regularly comes around her desk when one of her team members comes to speak with her. She feels that sitting side by side rather than across a desk leads to a better discussion. Why? Because she is putting that person at ease, she is conveying that she genuinely cares about him, and she is listening intently to what he has to say.

Another friend, a high-level executive with a leading company in the sports industry, has made listening a priority. He tunes in to the person speaking with an open mind, without problem-solving or seeking conclusions, while that person is speaking. It has been noticed and admired numerous times, not only by his immediate team members, but also by his senior executive colleagues.

Peter Hill, CEO of Billy Casper Golf, the leading company in golf management, says, “When I am speaking, I’m not learning.”

More leaders are recognizing how essential listening skills are today. Why now? Why are people striving to improve their listening skills? Because the quality of our listening determines the quality of our influence, and that brings huge benefits to our business.

Fact: 40% of people in the workforce today do not feel appreciated and valued, and 70% are either actively looking for a new job or would very likely accept an offer if it came their way. Now is the time to reach out to our people in meaningful ways.

E-mail has become the easy and quick way to communicate, share info, make requests and answer questions. Yet there is a dark side to the endless flow of e-mails. First, depending on how disciplined we are at managing -emails, each of us may have 100 to 300 e-mails to read, delete, respond to or act upon each day. But what is more disturbing is the fact that, to a great extent, emails have replaced conversations. We simply do not make the time to connect with and maintain solid relationships with people, as we should. We are on the go from the time we wake up till we turn off our bedside lamp. We’re too busy, way too busy.

This can and must be remedied by those of us who deeply care about our team and our team members’ success. We must stop spending so much time in meetings, speaking with other senior execs, and in front of our computers! Let’s walk around, check in with our people. If out of town, pick up the phone.

Of course we speak regularly with our clients. We ask how they are doing, what are their challenges and problems, ask how we can help, and we let them know we appreciate their confidence in us and that we value our relationship. We must have those conversations. If not, another service provider who does take the time to converse may win the client away from us.

We must recognize that every bit as important as our external clients are our internal clients, the people who are doing the work of our companies. We must let them know that we appreciate and value them and want to know their ideas. And we must listen attentively, with a quiet mind and our full focus, not thinking what we’ll say, not problem solving in our minds or even partially thinking of our to do list. We must learn to focus, be present.

People sense when we’re not really paying attention and are not fully focused, and they may sense that we think we’re more important than they are, that we take them for granted or that we don’t really think their ideas matter.

How can we improve our listening?

On average, we retain just 25% of what we hear, which is because of our busyness and lack of listening skills. The good news is that we can learn to be a better listener and significantly increase our retention. There are principles and practices that can help us be intentional, purposeful and conscientious when listening and that will make a huge difference with the spirit of our team members. If you’d like more information about how to improve listening skills, just e-mail me.

If our team members feel appreciated and valued, if they feel they are heard, they will more likely be fully engaged and take pride in their work — and that translates into productivity increases, greater loyalty and reduced turnover and outstanding financial results on a consistent basis.

Let’s remember that all businesses are people businesses, and business is about relationships. To earn and maintain quality relationships, our people need to know we genuinely care about them. By listening with an empathetic ear, by putting ourselves in their shoes and maintaining an open mind, we develop a culture of enthusiastic and energetic teamwork.

Our conscious listening, which is listening to understand and learn, is our gift to others.

Be assured, the journey of improving our ability to quiet our minds, to focus on the other person, and to become a fully present listener, will significantly improve our effectiveness as a leader.

John Keyser is the founder and principal of Common Sense Leadership. He works with executives helping them develop organizational cultures that will produce outstanding financial results year after year, and a striving for continuous improvement, theirs and their team’s. E-mail him or call 202-236-2800.

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