Leaders are generally logical, rational people. We’ve gotten where we are because of our ability to come up with solutions, think on our feet, and fit the stereotype of a problem-solver. What we might not realize is that sound emotions are key to making sound logical decisions, and that balance is the key to sustainable leadership. I recently wrote about an experience that made me rethink the way I listen. Now I listen to connect, not to solve problems–or at least I try to do so every day, in every conversation I have.

Listening in the moment takes practice and concentration. Over the years, I’ve picked up a few strategies that have helped me be a more present listener. These strategies can help us, as leaders, become more connected to those around us.

Giving a Second Wind
If you’re in a service industry like me, you’re probably familiar with this situation: A team member’s client lodges a concern or a complaint, and it comes back to you. It happens to the best (and all) of us. When this does happen, and the team member explains the story behind the complaint, it’s always best to resist the temptation to provide solutions. More often than not, what your teammate really needs is support. They might be feeling wounded by the customer’s reaction, or insecure about their role in this situation. They need to reaffirm themselves, and possibly to vent. These team members are smart enough to come up with their own solution; they don’t need one from their manager. So in these moments, listen with an open heart. The goal should be to relate to them and reflect that in a way that affirms and lifts them up. Runners say that if you keep going beyond the point of giving up, then something good happens; you get your second wind. In many ways, this applies to our role here.

Asking First, then Listening
Try asking people how they want you to listen to them. Start with something like this: “Are you looking for me to help you think this through, or do you want me to just listen?” You will be amazed at how many times people say, “I just want you to listen to me.” Asking this question up front makes the speaker more comfortable sharing, establishes your role as listener, and frames the conversation in an open and honest way.

Letting Them Vent
When a customer calls to complain, the subtext is often that they don’t feel heard or understood. Sometimes the best results come when we just listen to their complaints (as difficult as that can be) and don’t offer an explanation or a solution. Try something like this: “I’m really, really sorry. I hear that, and it sounds awful.” Then follow up by asking, “Can I help do anything here?” After that, the client might feel a sense of relief that you understood their problem, and not need anything more.

Listening in this way isn’t a practical solution, but it’s the foundation for a solution. Listening with our hearts, connecting emotionally with our peers, and truly empathizing with others makes us all better leaders. It might sound odd to say this, but some of the most gratifying moments of my life have been when I’ve been moved to tears by other people’s stories. For both me and the speaker, that emotional connection has far surpassed any words I might have said. You might have developed your own listening style over the years. Changing your approach, or adding to it, may just keep your leadership style fresh and take your connections to a deeper level.

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