Over the past 10 years, many clients have asked me for strategies to increase their presence in business meetings. It’s an understandable request, given the high-pressure and competitive world of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where I work. Everyone wants to be the next disrupter, to change an industry or to move ahead of their peers.
Many people think the way to increase their presence is to dominate conversations, but, when asked to name one quality all successful business leaders have in common, they eventually say, “They listen.” The more successful a business leader is, the more he or she listens and knows whom to listen to. To increase your presence in meetings, try active listening.
Active listening is a technique that is commonly used in conflict resolution, negotiations and in-person business communications. It requires the listener to concentrate, understand, remember and respond to what others say. Too many meetings go south when attendees interrupt each other, talk over each other or do not acknowledge the validity of other people’s points of view. These meetings are often exhausting and leave participants feeling as though they have accomplished little. When we are listening well, even if we are speaking, we are communicating and demonstrating respect for and connection with our audience. Active listening brings us into a deeper relationship with the other person.
If you are in a position of leadership and carry an undercurrent of hostility or a lack of patience, your team members are not likely to feel supported when they speak. As a result, they will hold back ideas and opinions. On the other hand, if employees feel listened to, that they are seen and heard, that their thoughts are considered in planning and decision-making, they are often more motivated. Even if you do not like their ideas, the fact that you listened is a critical part of leadership that builds strong teams. It provides opportunities for constructive feedback and moving forward.
Here’s are four steps to help you practice active listening in your next meeting:
- Slow down, and slightly deepen your breathing. This exercise will help you relax and focus on others, so you can take in information even if you’re tired or distracted.
- Remind yourself to listen in order to understand and not to interrupt or push your own agenda.
- Make eye contact with the speaker. Let him or her know you are listening with non-verbal communication, such as nod, a warm gaze (as opposed to a stare) or a smile.
- When you do speak, directly acknowledge another person’s idea before or during your comments. Stay calm, clear and direct.
Never interrupt someone who is speaking. If your company culture allows for constant cross talk during meetings, the way to stand out is to acknowledge others while keeping your focus on the work. If the room becomes chaotic, go in the opposite direction by staying calm, quiet and present. Others will perceive you as wise and trustworthy when you listen without being carried away by your need to dominate the conversation or prove your worth.
Observe how others actively listen during their interactions. By watching professionals who draw on this skill, you will find it to be relevant in many situations. Active listening is a very human thing to do when we are interested in another person and in what he or she has to say.
Active listening is also an accessible practice to bring into your interactions. It can be direct and formal or more casual, as you find ways to acknowledge that you understood what another person said.
As you practice active listening, what do you notice? How do your conversations change? What is the impact on your relationships? As the skill and habit of active listening take hold, you may find that you are more comfortable in silence and that you are more present, even when the attention is not on you at all.