We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. – Epictetus, Greek philosopher, ~ 100 AD
Today, people want leaders who will not just hear them, but really listen to them. Listening goes far beyond just hearing. We live in a cacophony of sound. At the moment, I hear a plane flying overhead, the noise of a plumber working upstairs and his singing, the ticking of a mantle clock, someone walking across the floor in an adjacent room, the noise of water running, the furnace switching on, and the list goes on. The difference between the sense of hearing, which evolved as our alarm system, and the skill of listening is attention.
Since there is no place that is really quiet, our auditory system has evolved a complex and automatic “volume control,” fine-tuned by development and experience. This volume control keeps most sounds off your cognitive radar unless they might be of use as a signal that something dangerous, or wonderful, is somewhere within the area that your ears can detect.
Attention is what enables you to actively focus on what you’re hearing and tune out other sounds you hear that are not important at the moment. Hearing is easy. Listening is a skill that we are in danger of losing in the world we’ve created with digital distractions and information overload.
So listening is really hard, it’s your choice to be quiet and give someone your full attention. When you listen you must be aware not only of the words you hear but also the body language, facial expressions, mood and natural behavioral tendencies of the speaker. To be a good listener, you have to let go of everything else that is going on and really focus on the speaker. Have you ever had a conversation with a great listener? If you have, more than likely you felt as if you were the only person in the room. You were at the absolute center of your listener’s attention!
Listening is a leadership responsibility that doesn’t appear in anyone’s job description. Yet, listening is absolutely critical to creating a work environment in which employees will decide on their own to become highly motivated, committed, fully-engaged, and in that kind of condition they’re going to literally love to come to work. Karin Hurt notes that “Listening transforms relationships, improves team performance, makes customers feel valued, gets down to root causes, and even attracts business.”
Yet, too often we talk far more than we listen. Most of us would have difficulty claiming that we listen consistently. Given the importance of listening, how can we be better listeners and also build a culture of effective listening in your organization?
Here are seven ways to get you started:
1. Show that you care. People want to be led by those who genuinely care about who they are and what they represent to the team and organization. They want to be seen as individuals and valuable resources who bring unique capabilities not necessarily bounded by their current job functions. Employees want leaders who care about their general well-being and who can be depended upon during times of professional and personal hardship.
2. Tell the truth. If you want people to listen to what you have to say, make sure that they have reason to believe you. Candor and trust are the foundation stones of good listening.
3. Engage yourself. Be an amateur anthropologist. Anthropologists are very skilled at asking great questions and making meaning from the responses. Don’t arrive with the answers or with a point to prove. Ask questions and encourage them to elaborate and expand upon their perspectives. Listen to learn and to understand. Hold yourself accountable and follow-up. They will know that you are listening, paying attention and attempting to understand what matters most to them.
4. Be empathetic. The workplace today is filled with stress and the pressures of the day. Each staff member deals with his or her stresses in their own individual way. Be empathetic, make yourself approachable to those who need attention. Balance the head and the heart.
5. Don’t judge, reward transparency. Leaders that judge others are not listening. If your response to a different style or approach, or bad news, is to rebut or freak out, you’ll quickly find that people will fear delivering the truth to you. Surround yourself with those who will bring you the truth, who will challenge your ideas. Karin Hurt says that “A team dynamic that encourages diversity of thought and action will thrive.” Be open to learning from those around you.
6. Be Expansively Mindful. Glenn Lopis notes that “Great Leaders are extremely mindful of their surroundings. They know how to actively listen beyond the obvious via both verbal and non-verbal communication. They acknowledge others via body language, facial expressions, and nods.” They don’t just hear conversations, they listen and engage in dialogue. “If you appear disconnected, you are perceived as disinterested and not listening.”
7. Don’t interrupt. Have you ever been interrupted by someone who supposedly is listening to you? Unfortunately, it is all too common! Lopis says: “Compassionate leaders listen and don’t interrupt the flow of the dialogue. They embrace two-way communication and are aware that with every interruption comes disengagement. They earn respect from their peers by being a patient listener.” Stay focused on what is being said. Be in the moment and respectful.
The 2016 New Year is on the near horizon. As you think about what New Year’s Resolutions you might make, I urge you to consider that one of them be a goal to become a better listener in the first six weeks of 2016. It will take some hard work: Learning to eliminate distractions when you are listening, learning to focus on what’s said and ask questions even when you don’t fully understand where the conversation is going, and always being authentic, empathetic, and non-judgmental. I know you can do it and it’s my sincere hope that you’ll take the challenge.
As this is the last Tuesday Reading before the New Year, I want to wish you a very happy holiday season. The next Tuesday Reading will arrive on Tuesday, January 5, 2016.
. . . . jim
Glenn Lopis, 6 Ways Effective Listening Can Make You A Better Leader, Forbes
Karin Hurt, How To Build A Culture of Listening, FastCompany
Kevin Cashman, How To Ask –– And Listen –– Like You Mean It, FastCompany
Seth Horowitz, The Science and Art of Listening, The New York Times Sunday Review