Most leaders are average listeners—at best. These 5 steps can make you better.

Listening—really listening—is a vital and frequently underutilized leadership tool, writes Adam Bryant for the New York Times. But listening can be a challenge in today's world of electronic communication.

Most people think that good listeners are those who listen in silence and can repeat back what they've heard. But one study of 3,500 managers found that the best listeners went beyond that. They created a positive environment for the person speaking. They engaged in a cooperative, two-way dialogue that made the other person feel like they wanted to help, not like they were trying to win an argument.

Drawing on his 30-year career in journalism, Bryant shares five ways anyone can become a better listener:

1: Remove distractions

It's hard to listen when you're distracted by your phone buzzing or thinking about your upcoming presentation—or even when you're planning how you will respond to the person talking. That's why Bryant recommends putting your phone away, turning away from your monitors, and clearing your mind before engaging in conversation.

"When you have a conversation with somebody, you're not going to get the nuances of the conversation if you're doing too many things," says Michael Mathieu, CEO of BeAlive Media. "Most people can't multitask without losing something in each of those tasks."

To be fully present in your conversations, Mathieu recommends thinking of listening as a form of meditation, clearing away all distractions so that you can "enjoy the richness and quality of interactions with people."

You can also think of listening as an improv exercise, suggests Mark Fuller, CEO of Wet Design. "Improv, if properly taught, is really about listening to the other person, because there's no script," says Fuller. "It's about responding" in the moment.

2: Leave your judgments behind

Listening should be an act of empathy, notes Bryant. "If you go into the discussion with the main goal of understanding their perspective, free of any judgment, people will open up to you, because they will feel they can trust you to respect what they are saying," he writes. On the other hand, if you go into a conversation with an agenda or with preconceived judgments, you'll have a hard time building trust.

"You can't have an agenda," says Joel Peterson, the chairman of JetBlue Airways. "If you have these driving needs to show off or be heard or whatever, then that kind of overwhelms the process. If you're really grounded and at home with yourself, then you can actually get in the other person's world, and I think that builds trust."

Bryant therefore recommends pausing before you speak to question your motivations and gain some self-awareness. He suggests remembering the acronym W.A.I.T., or "Why Am I Talking?" Consider whether your intention is to show that you understand what the other person is saying—or if your intention is to brag or judge.

Also see: Think you're a great listener? A third of leaders aren't.

3: Watch your body language

Your body language can signal that you're actively listening—or that you're distracted or don't care what the other person is saying, writes Bryant. For instance, leaning in, nodding or tilting your head, or even arching an eyebrow at the right moment can signal to the person speaking that you're paying attention. On the other hand, crossing your arms or staring blankly sends the message that you don't care.

"Use body language to add energy to the conversation," advises Bryant. "Even if you are listening intently, you have to show people you are listening to them."

4: Go in with an open mind

Enter each conversation with the intention of learning something new, advises Bryant. "All you have to do is assume that everyone you meet has learned a thing or two in their lives, and that you can unearth those insights with a combination of genuine interest and some open-ended questions," he writes.

Bryant recommends asking open-ended questions such as, "What surprised you about that?" or "Why did that interest you?"

Listening to learn not only allows you to gain new perspectives, but also demonstrates that you're eager and ambitious. "If you show interest and energy, people will respond and share what they know and how they learned it," writes Bryant. "It's a fast and free education, plus you'll build relationships."

5: Show respect

Bryant writes that oftentimes, leaders assume that "they're supposed to have answers, rather than questions." But being a leader is about more than coming up with solutions; it's about being trustworthy and respecting those you work with. "And what is the important day-to-day manifestation of showing somebody that you respect them?" asks Bryant. "Listening to them."

J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr., the executive chairman of Marriott International, suggests that the four most important words a leader can add to his or her vocabulary are "What do you think?" Reflecting on his own leadership experience, Marriott adds, "I felt that if I included [my employees] in the decision-making process, and asked them what they thought, and I listened to what they had to say and considered it, they usually got on board because they knew they'd been respected and heard, even if I went in a different direction than what they were recommending" (Bryant, New York Times, accessed 3/20).

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