In today’s VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) it is key for leaders to listen with care and attention. Listening to customers provides key input and feedback for designing and improving products and services. Listening to employees and to their needs, concerns, and ambitions is essential in building motivation and engagement. Listening to different stakeholders contributes to building a collaborative environment in which all involved parties co-construct ideas and actions. Finally, listening to weak signals in our environment may provide valuable insights for strategy development.

Thoughtful listening is when you do this with careful thought (the rational side of listening) and with consideration for others (the relational side of listening). Yet for many leaders thoughtful listening doesn’t come naturally. For most of us it’s really not so easy as it looks on paper. And very often we’ve not been taught the skills to practice thoughtful listening. Listening is probably the most underrated leadership skill.

Here are 5 tips to enhance your thoughtful listening skills:

  1. Stay curious: Even with tons of experience it always pays to be open to new perspectives. See these perspectives as opportunities to explore things in depth, whether it’s customer feedback, market research, employee concerns, or any other significant topic. Dive deep by asking lots of open questions, and interesting horizons may appear to you just by adopting a curious attitude.
  2. Create the right context: Thoughtful listening requires an environment without distractions. So put away all mobile phones, tablets, computers and other gadgets if you want to listen with thought and consideration. Avoid noisy environments where you are interrupted every 2 minutes. Instead, look for a quiet environment that invites to openness and thoughtful exchange.
  3. Listen with open mind, heart and will: This practice has been developed by MIT Professor Otto Scharmer, and is key in his Theory U approach. Listening with open mind means that you are open and ready to accept opinions that do not confirm your own beliefs and assumptions. Easy to write, not so easy to do (I know from experience). Listening with open heart goes one step further. This is about the capacity to listen from the perspective of the other person. It’s also referred to as empathic listening. Finally, listening with open will means that you listen with the intent to let new and future possibilities emerge from your listening.
  4. Listen to multiple channels: The more diversity you are looking for in your listening, the richer the feedback that you will get. Leave the known and traditional paths in order to find this diversity, and listen to multiple sources or channels. As an example, exploring practices in an industry that is completely different from your own sometimes generates super inspiration to change and improve practices in your own activities.
  5. Look for rebel input: We often have a tendency to attach much more attention to information that confirms our own hypotheses. In psychology this is known as the confirmation bias (see e.g. Daniel Kahnemans’s work on bias). It’s totally human and normal, and not easy to avoid. Therefore it is always of interest to explore totally different, discomforting ideas, thoughts and perspectives. So look for minority opinions and give them the attention that they deserve.

Enjoy the benefits of thoughtful listening!