How to Listen More Effectively

Election season involved a lot of shouting but not so much listening. We looked for ways leaders and employees can communicate better.

The election shouting may end this week—hopefully—but the feeling that no one is listening to us is likely going to linger. And not only in the political arena but at work too.

Indeed, experts say the US presidential election season, which has lasted two years, only mirrored a growing feeling among workers that their leaders talk at them, not with them. That feeling only magnified at work when video calls and masks became routine during the pandemic. “Leaders and employees are stuck in a communication cycle of giving information and providing updates instead of really connecting,” says Dennis Baltzley, Korn Ferry’s global solutions leader for leadership development.

It doesn’t help that many people, according to years of research, aren’t great listeners in the first place. That’s particularly true when the topic involves something distressing or uncomfortable, as has been much of the conversation between employees and leaders this year.

With that in mind, Korn Ferry searched for a few ways to help managers at all levels—not to mention one colleague to another—become more effective listeners.

Drop the entitlement.

Ask any CEO what the foundation of great leadership is, and they’ll say that it’s being a good listener. Yet research shows that as people advance in organizations, the worse their listening gets. Why? “Because the higher one rises, the more they think they know the answers because of their seasoned experience,” says Kevin Cashman, Korn Ferry’s global leader of CEO and executive development. Another factor, says Cashman, is not unlike in sports: business moves faster at the top. Slow down and take time to listen to those below you, he advises.

Ask questions.

Baltzley says the only way to move from giving information and updates to connection and empathy is to ask questions, particularly open-ended ones. “Framing powerful questions is a skill to engage others,” he says. Asking questions, by its very nature, invites comments and conversations. It’s important, however, to acknowledge and validate the responses even if you disagree with them—dismissing them could result in more frustration and disengagement.

Absorb and repeat.

There’s a reason this tactic is a tenet of the psychological practice of active listening—it works. Instead of thinking about your response, which is what most people do when others are talking, taking in what is being said and repeating it back in different terms shows that you understand and can place yourself in the other person’s shoes. Absorbing and repeating “fosters learning for you, development for others, and solutions for all,” says Cashman.

Avoid selective perception.

People hear what they want to hear and ignore want they don’t want to hear. That can lead to some serious blind spots when it comes to identifying potential anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues stemming from the pandemic, protests, the election, or other sources of stress this year. It’s easy, for instance, to dismiss the frustrations of an employee who always seems to be complaining as more of the same, when in reality, you could be missing signs of something more serious. “If you take a view or form a judgment at the beginning of the conversation, then you can’t really hear what’s being said,” says Dennis Carey, a Korn Ferry vice chairman and coleader of the firm’s Board Services practice.

To be sure, Carey says the leaders he works with are finding that employees who tend to be shy in face-to-face communication are more willing to open up from behind a computer screen. He says that dynamic provides leaders with a ripe opportunity to learn from people who had been reticent to share their thoughts or feelings in person. “That is, if they listen carefully to them,” he says.