Oprah’s interview with Lance Armstrong attracted nearly half a million views on You Tube. Oprah is a leader in her field. She has developed one of the most critical, yet underrated, skills in personal leadership – Active listening.

The ability to actively listen is important for leadership both in your personal and professional activities. It is also a key skill in executive coaching. The benefits of listening to others provides for new learning, maximizing productivity, improved relationships, engaging others, generating independent thinking and achieving and being more.

One of Oprah’s key strengths is her ability to listen. She not only listens to what is being said, she listens for what is not being said. In any spoken message, 55% of the meaning is translated non-verbally, 38% is indicated by the tone of voice, while only 7% is conveyed by the words used (Mehrabian, 1981). In the interview with Lance Armstrong, Oprah demonstrates her active listening by using her EARS where:

E = show empathy and engage with eye contact. When listening actively, keep your eyes on the speaker. A soft gaze rather than a piercing glare. This further encourages the speaker to speak. When you are looking at the speaker, you will notice how their body moves, or how it stays rigid and the message this sends. As people speak, their eyes will look in different directions, stay focused on them, even if they are not looking at you.

A = ask questions. Ask questions to encourage the speaker to speak more. In the interview with Lance Armstrong, Oprah asked the same question three times ‘what did you tell your son?’ It was a difficult question for Lance and it evoked much emotion. The same question kept Lance on track and enabled him to express all that was connected with that question – both the emotions and the facts.

R = restate what you have heard. To ensure you understand what the speaker is saying or asking or to show you have listened actively, restate what the speaker has said. This provides the speaker to acknowledge your listening or clarify what they have just said. It further helps the speaker to think more.

S = silence. The power of silence is invaluable. After you have asked a question or restated what you have heard, the key is remaining silent. Allow the speaker to respond. I have noticed how uncomfortable people feel with silence and so they choose to fill the silence with an ‘mmm’ or ‘ahhahh’ and whilst this can be acknowledging to the speaker, if offered too frequently, it serves as a distraction and can have the opposite effective of ‘hurry up, I have heard enough now!’

We are faced with many challenges when it comes to listening and it is helpful to be aware of these so that we can seek to mitigate them.

Research suggests that the three most common barriers to listening for business practitioners are:

1. Environmental distractions such as phones ringing and other people talking,
2. Personal and internal distractions, such as hunger, headache, or preoccupation with something else, and
3. Rebuttal tendency – developing a counter argument while the speaker is still speaking

Furthermore, the average person talks at a rate of about 125 – 175 words per minute, while we can listen at a rate of up to 450 words per minute. Consequently we are able to take in so much more than just the words the speaker speaks. As indicated above, 55% of the message we take in comes from the non-verbal messages.

Additionally, we can find ourselves finishing the sentence of others as we think we know what they will say next. Whilst this is true, especially when you know the speaker very well, it is a trap that we fall into where we are not paying attention to the speaker, rather we are pre-empting what they will say and make up our own minds as to what is coming next.

My invitation to you is to think about the next time you engage with someone and practice your active listening. By adopting the strategy above using your EARS to show empathy, ask questions, restate and be silent, you will develop further your active listening as part of your personal leadership in achieving what you want for yourself and others.

What habits do you notice in yourself that distract you from actively listening to others?

Please leave a comment in the box below – I would love to hear your experiences and what can get in the way of your listening.