To Develop Your Executive Presence, Learn to Listen

Executive presence is one of the most commonly asked for areas in leadership development and coaching. But, what is it?

There is something of a mystery surrounding executive presence.

Some see it as a high level of confidence and gravitas, the ability to command attention, to be seen and heard. Sometimes it’s equated to asking good questions, listening and emotional intelligence. At other times, it’s correlated with directness or good posture or wearing the right clothes!

If executive presence seems mysterious, it’s because there are so many different definitions of it.

But it doesn’t have to be such a mystery. When I work with clients on executive presence, I find that there are a number of specific behaviors and practices that can help improve their executive presence. While executive presence looks different in different leaders and situations and adaptability is important, there are some basic principles that generally hold true.

Depending on their needs, I sometimes advise clients to start by working on their listening skills because listening is a critical underpinning for executive presence and for communication in general.

Why listening is important

There are many advantages to good listening. For managers, good listening improves their ability to support and empower the people they manage. In peer relationships, listening improves trust and collaboration, both within a department and across organizations. Listening well also makes leaders better able to give the people above them what they need and to be aligned in executing on broad strategies.

Becoming a better listener

There’s nothing magic about good listening. Like most leadership behaviors, it’s something that can definitely be learned, even though some people are naturally more gifted to start.

Here are a few tips for becoming a better listener.

Give your full focus and attention

Part of the definition of listening is paying attention, and this means that you can’t multitask and listen well at the same time. At one of my favorite science museums, there’s a great exhibit that illustrates this. The exhibit consists of a telephone and a written paragraph on the wall in front of you. The task is to listen to a recorded voice on the phone while you simultaneously read the paragraph out loud. It’s a great example of how you can’t listen and do something else at the same time.

So, put down whatever you’re working on, set aside your smart device, and turn away from your computer. Make eye contact and give your full attention to the person in front of you. If you’re on the phone or on a video conference, give your full focus to the person that you’re interacting with.

Sometimes people say, “Hey, I can multitask and still listen! I’m doing something else or thinking about something else, but I am giving my full attention.”

I would argue, first, that if you’re not giving your full attention to the person, you aren’t fully listening.

But second—and perhaps more importantly—the person that you’re listening to won’t have evidence that you’re listening. In other words, if you are looking at your phone while you’re listening, you’re not showing them that you’re listening. Their perception that you’re listening is just as important as the listening itself. So, make sure that you’re paying attention.

Paraphrase back what you heard

Summarizing or paraphrasing is another way to prove to others that you’ve heard what they’re saying. You can do this with the information that they shared, and you can also do it with the emotion that they have expressed. And this can be done very briefly.

Imagine someone talking to you for several minutes about a problem they’re having with one of their peers. They believe their peer is not doing their job, and you can tell this aggravates them. You might summarize back briefly by saying, “I think you’re saying that your peer isn’t doing their job, and you’re frustrated about it. Is that right?”

In this case, you’ve summarized back both the information and the emotion they have conveyed. This shows the other person that you’ve really heard them. When they feel heard, they can relax and more easily move towards problem solving.

Avoid cognitive multitasking

The mindset that you use to approach listening is just as important as your outward behaviors.

Most of us combine listening with other mental activities, even if we’re not outwardly multitasking. We may be trying formulate our response or thinking about why we disagree with some part of what they are saying.

I tell people that listening is most effective if, while you’re listening, that’s all you’re doing. This means avoiding judgment while you’re listening. Try to think of listening as a discrete activity separate from evaluating and separate from responding. Listen with everything you’ve got! You can always worry about what you’re going to say in response after you’ve really heard what the other person is saying.

Assess Your Intentions

In my experience, people consider your intentions when they decide whether they think you’re listening or not. If you mean well for the other person and are trying to help, they are more likely to believe you are really listening to them.

If your intention is to develop high-trust, meaningful relationships where all parties can be successful, people will sense that. However, if your intent is to drive your own agenda no matter what, people will sense that and it may affect whether they think you are really listening to them.

Your intentions are not necessarily good or bad, they are simply something to be aware of. Are they what you want them to be? Assuming that people will detect your true motivations, are you comfortable with what they will find? If not, what would you like to change?

If you are working on improving your executive presence, consider assessing your listening skills. Ask yourself: where am I strong, and where might I need to improve? A simple place to begin is to ask yourself, in an average conversation, how much am I talking and how much are other people talking? If you’re the loudest voice in the room, then you need to become a better listener. You might also ask for feedback from others—it’s always a good way to learn.

For more on executive presence, see our posts on diversity and inclusion, authenticity, word choice, body language and voice.

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