Lead Effectively: Speak 20%, Actively Listen 80%!*
Hand on heart: Do you know the current state of well-being of your employees? Do you understand their worries, challenges, and feelings? Do you know what truly moves them? What challenges they face? What is going well for them? And where they urgently need support?
Listening is exhausting
Effective listening requires practice and training. Especially for leaders and particularly in uncertain times when many people are plagued by existential worries. A natural talent for listening is rare. The ability to constantly express our opinions on various channels and be confirmed in our “bubble” does not make listening any easier.
In hierarchical structures, there is also often the unspoken rule that leaders take up the majority of speaking time in meetings – and ultimately are always right. The transition from a dominant speaker to an attentive listener marks a significant step towards a sustainable cultural change in organizations. Which requires time, strength, and perseverance. Because true listening requires a high level of activity. Studies have shown that listening is much more strenuous than speaking. When we speak, our brain is stimulated similarly to when we eat or have sex. Which releases positive energy in our body; on the contrary, active listening significantly depletes our energy reserves.
Can I actually listen?
When thinking of leadership communication skills, many initially think of rhetoric, the ability to present well and maintain verbal control. This perspective needs to change. Because good leaders, who strive for a collaborative, open, and appreciative corporate culture, do not need to talk much. But rather need to listen attentively – regularly and to each individual employee. This leadership ability can be trained like a muscle. A prerequisite for this is to critically reflect on one’s own communication behavior.
The five stages of listening
Listening goes far beyond the simple absorption of words. The quality of listening can be measured in five stages:
- Stage 1 (lowest level): Not listening – We pay no attention to the speaker, perhaps constantly looking at our smartphone or otherwise signaling our disinterest. Here, the other person is ignored, and effective communication does not take place.
- Stage 2: Listening to speak ourselves – We immediately check the information received for how we can personally interpret or respond to what has been said. The focus is more on formulating our own response than on understanding what has been said.
- Stage 3: Listening to agree or disagree – Here, we perceive the words of our conversation partner, but mainly consider them from the point of view of our own opinion and positioning.
- Stage 4: the transition to empathetic listening: Understanding what moves our counterpart – Here, we listen not out of self-interest or to evaluate what has been said, but out of genuine interest in the perspective and emotions of the other person.
- Stage 5 (highest level): Enabling a better self-understanding of the other person – At this level, listening becomes a mirror that helps our counterpart sort out their own thoughts and feelings and gain new insights or perspectives, without us sending the topics through our personal filter.
Understanding and applying these listening stages, especially stages 4 and 5, enables profound, empathetic communication, creates space for genuine exchange, and fosters mutual appreciation. By actively listening, leaders:
- receive accurate information; this increases the likelihood of making wise decisions.
- show appreciation to employees.
- enhance the sense of belonging and connection among each other.
Actively Listening with AI
However, it is also clear: listening takes time. And given the diverse role expectations on HR in recent years, time has become scarcer. However, the advent of artificial intelligence could herald a turning point here. AI proves to be almost the perfect listener. It can effortlessly analyze text and voice data, a task that was previously reserved for human intelligence and took place in time-consuming and costly assessment and development centers. With AI, qualitative data and complex relationships can be utilized in a completely new way.
Leveraging AI for Qualitative Data
At Zortify, for example, we train our models using artificial neural networks. These can filter information from the environment in a way similar to the human brain. For example, AI is capable of reading out needs and moods from large datasets with qualitative text responses and identifying psychological states of employees. And that’s exactly what it’s all about: recognizing what is there without immediately evaluating it or reflexively reacting to what has been said, as we often unconsciously do in conversations (see stages 2 and 3).
Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes once said in an interview, “Listening is a matter of deciding that you do not have to worry about what you are going to say next.” This is a point that is difficult for us humans, especially when we – as in the professional context – always believe we have to have a competent answer ready. AI does not know such social fears. It listens without its own expectations and thus fundamentally enables a deep understanding of what has been said. This forms a valuable basis for HR experts to initiate specific measures and suggest. For example, an internal job change, a career step, or a confidential conversation. What used to take months or years (or was even completely ignored) is now possible thanks to AI within minutes: Active listening through data analysis, followed by human intervention by HR.
The right setting
Leaders are called upon to develop a sense of which communication channel is most effective for the different personality types in their team. In particular, they should actively approach the “silent” team members again and again and promote continuous exchange. The key here is a setting in which both sides feel comfortable. And what is the best way to find that out? Exactly: by listening attentively.
Article header: Franco Antonio on Unsplash