Why is it so hard to listen? After nearly thirty years of helping people succeed in various settings, I have come to the conclusion that so many of the challenges we face as leaders center on a failure to listen. We are capable of hearing without listening, and that, more than anything, keeps organizations locked in cycles of confusion and conflict. In my thinking, hearing is the physical activity of identifying sounds, but listening is a much more complex and troublesome activity that takes both time and energy. However I can state emphatically that learning listen by using all your senses will produce a tremendous boost to your leadership ability. In thinking about how to address this broad subject, it occurred that in the space we have it would be good to address three applications of listening in leadership: listening as the new leader, listening to persuade, and listening by wandering around.
Libby Sartain discusses listening as the new leader, in her book HR From the Heart. She offers great advice about when to listen. She recommends that listening is the perfect behavior for a new member of a team, committee, or board. Even if you’ve studied and worked for years to acquire your new membership, stop, look and listen during your first of many meetings with the group and absorb how the team interacts, what its history is, its culture and values. Listen, and stop yourself from blurting out all the fabulous input and advice you’ve spent years preparing. Listening for a long time (longer than you’d really like and are comfortable with) will help prevent you from accidentally touching on a sore subject, or stepping on toes, or any of the other embarrassing, relationship-straining things one can do in an unknown environment.
You may be familiar with the old jokes about Americans speaking English to foreigners in a loud, slow voice, as if the communication barrier was volume, not the inability to understand the language. I see people repeat that funny situation at the office frequently, except the miscommunication isn’t a language barrier, it’s a values barrier. To engage in a conversation, you have to be speaking the same language as the other participant, and this doesn’t refer simply to English, Spanish, or even Farsi, but the “language” of values or priorities.
Each time this situation occurs, the speaker turns up the volume insistency of their message, but it’s not their audience that isn’t listening, it’s them. The leader is not listening to the clues the other person is sending about what influences their decision-making. Some people don’t decide based on facts alone; the effect of an action on relationships, or a different (more or less optimistic) vision of the future, is their primary decision factor. If you have tried repeatedly to persuade someone unsuccessfully, you need to listen to where their objections come from and reframe your talking points to address their “hot buttons.” Listen to their conversation. Do they discuss current financial reports, or share their vision for the future? Do they reference individual situations, or do they report on task completion? Do they use words like, “I think….” Or “I feel…..”? So much of leadership is persuasion, and to lead effectively you need to be able to use persuasive listening.
Finally, leading by walking around has been a popular concept in leadership circles for many years, but the more important aspect of leading by wandering is to listen during the wandering. The idea is that a leader should interact regularly with their team members through informal encounters in order to understand what’s really going on. The spontaneity and “here and now” nature of this allows a manager to get a more accurate understanding for the issues, barriers and real-life operational tactics of his team.
Most leaders will readily agree to the value of this concept, but stall out on its implementation. “What do I say to them?” they ask. And anyone who is an experienced practitioner of listening (went to the workshop, got the certificate!) will immediately identify the problem: Management by walking around doesn’t require ”saying” anything – it demands listening. The question managers should ask is, “How can I behave to encourage the most frank interaction possible from my team?” Management by walking around, rather than receiving formal scheduled briefings, is like the difference of listening to a live broadcast compared to a taped program.
The answer to the right question, “How can I behave to encourage the most frank interaction possible from my team?” can be answered this way: borrow from standard interviewing techniques and prepare a variety of open-ended questions to let the team members know what you’d like to learn about, and then use your best listening techniques to gather information about your employees’ real work. Resist the urge to offer solutions or resolve problems right away. Doing that would require you to be talking, and you’re supposed to be listening. Keep asking follow-up questions, and wait to provide your comments at a later time.
Listening does not come naturally to many leaders, but developing this skill to add to your leadership tool chest will enhance your ability to effectively lead.