Often, when we think of communication, we think of speaking, presenting, writing--delivering a message in some way. But an effective communicator is also adept at receiving messages. You won't budge people toward a goal if they don't feel that they've had input, that they've been heard and understood, and that the vision they're working toward is also their own vision. Listening to your followers is the only way you can make this happen.

To be a good leader, HEAR OUT what others have to say:

H old judgment and hold eye focus. Listen carefully and with an open mind — if you're defensive you may miss critical information. Don't formulate your answer while a person is still speaking. Watch for subtle body language that may offer extra clues to the speaker's true meaning. Also, hold eye focus. If you don't' look at the person who is speaking to you, you can't establish trust. As a leader, you want followers to trust you and believe in you.

E nd all other tasks. Show respect for people by putting aside your paper, lunch, etc., and don't take phone calls. You'll be better regarded, and you'll save time. By “doing it right the first time,” there won't be misunderstandings or any need to repeat information. Be ready to job down notes as the person speaks.

A llow the speaker to finish. Don't interrupt. Don't change the subject. Don't finish sentences for the speaker. Remain quiet until you're sure the speaker has completed his or her thoughts.

R ead between the lines. As you listen to the speaker, listen for what might be left unsaid. It's not always easy for a person to approach someone in a more senior position and tell it like it is. If you want to get an honest opinion of some of your ideas and actions, you'll need to probe. You'll also need to value that feedback and the person who gave it to you. Never shoot the messenger.

O utline your understanding. Once the person is finished speaking, reiterate what you believe to be the main ideas, issues, etc. State them simply and, if possible, try to “rank” them from most important to least. At each step, ask the speaker if you've correctly heard the message. Take the time to be certain, or you've both simply wasted time.

U nderline major points. Once you and the speaker agree on the main ideas that have been uncovered, focus your attention on one or two of the most important: What needs to be done right now to make the speaker — and you — acknowledge that something positive has been accomplished? What else can be done in the future? Set a date to revisit these main ideas and to discuss progress.

T est the waters. Take what you've learned and test it with others. What are others feeling and thinking? Is this an isolated issue? Don't take it any less seriously but if it's a “movement” of sorts, you'll need to address it differently. Testing the waters allows you to explore the real needs, fears and hopes of your followers and incorporate them into your shared vision. Remember, if you're trying to move people in a new direction, you must know here they're coming from.

People don't always need leaders to agree with them and act on their suggestions. But people always do need to feel their leader cares enough to listen. When people are uncertain what tomorrow may bring, a leader with a reputation as a “good listener” may be the most prized employee in any organization. Work hard to make yourself that person.

Reprinted from PS for Business Communicators®, ECG's client newsletter.