Listen Close: 5 Tips for Small Business and Startups

People who run businesses tend to talk. A lot. We chair meetings, we advance our opinion, we write memos, we give marching orders, we articulate strategy, and we manage tactics. We are excellent at communicating our thoughts and wishes. What we don’t do quite as well is listen. As important as it is to be able to express our thoughts, it is equally important to be able to listen to those around us.

Managers are, by our very nature, in control. We control the situation, we control events, we control the people who work for us. We control our businesses. And, when we are speaking we are in control, but when we are listening to others that control is necessarily relinquished. For many managers, that yielding of control through the act of listening can be not just difficult, but can seem In conflict with our training.

And there’s the rub. Listening is a letting go of control. It does not come easy, and it requires practice and discipline. In order to understand someone we have to stop controlling and focus on the other half of the communication formula: listening. Listening is about respect; managers must understand that success is not to be attained unless they can seek out and act on information from the talented people around them. Your team needs to understand that their input is valuable, that you respect their ideas, and their contributions are unique.

Here are 5 things you can do to improve your listening skills and create an environment that encourages the healthy flow of fresh ideas and innovation.

Focus. Checking your phone, semi-listening, multi-tasking are all behaviors that constrain your ability to listen when someone else has the floor. You need to be fully present when another person is speaking or you are likely to miss something.

Learn. We have a tendency to focus on things we already know and are biased in particular towards ideas that we already believe in. But by forcing ourselves to listen for new and disconfirming ideas, we can gather information that we might otherwise miss. Be prepared to change your mind – if we listen hard, we can often find ourselves gaining knowledge we would not otherwise have obtained.

Challenge. Listening is an active pursuit and it is important that we not simply accept what is being said, but that we challenge the underlying assumptions at its core.

Ask. Always try to talk less than you listen. If you can apply a version of the 80-20 rule, and work hard to speak 20% of the time while listening 80% you are well on your way. And if you can use your 20% allotment to ask questions instead of offering your own ideas, you will learn more and better encourage others in the room to offer their own ideas.

Position. Body language means a great deal in your ability to listen to others. Maintain eye contact, lean in towards the other person, avoid unintended nonverbal communications such as fidgeting and eye-rolling. By disciplining your own physical interactions you can listen more effectively and communicate to the other person that you care about what they have to say.

Photo: Alexander Torrenegra