I know it’s hard to believe but sometimes our four year-old grand daughter doesn’t listen! I’m sure all parents and grand-parents out there relate to the situation where there’s a bit of a melt-down going on and our ‘little treasure’ is simply not hearing us. In these moments one thing we have been encouraged to ask (by her parents) is ‘Have you got your listening ears on?’
In my experience, this is also a great question for leaders to ask of themselves in their quest to become even more effective in their roles.
Listening is one of the keys to communication, and in turn to leadership. When we have poor listening skills we jump to conclusions, misinterpret and misunderstand what is being said. By listening effectively, leaders get feedback on how they are being perceived; they learn how their team members are working; build positive team culture; engage with their team members and encourage new ideas and innovative thinking.
Effective listening is ‘hearing with attitude’ or listening with empathy. It’s about ‘really’ listening to the words that are being said and also looking to pick up subtle signals from an individual’s tone of voice and physiology. The way the words are said can say more than the words themselves. When we are really listening we will start to notice an inflexion in the voice, or the way a person looks when they say something, that provides a signal for what is going on for them. When you listen with empathy you listen to what is being said with your ears but you also, more importantly, listen to what isn’t being said.
To be able to listen with empathy, you have to learn to consciously turn off your inner dialogue, clear your mind, and listen with an engaged attitude. This sounds simple, but is not. It is easy for our minds to wander off as we are listening. It is important to notice when this is happening and to find a way to bring yourself back to the conversation. One way to do this is to focus on what words the person is saying and ask yourself, ‘What am I listening to here?’
As leaders we often feel we have the ‘right’ answer and fall into the trap of listening to respond i.e. we wait for a gap in the conversation and input what we would do in that situation. We can also sometimes fall into the trap of only seeing one way of doing something, rather than opening ourselves up to seeing what other ways our people can accomplish a task or solve an issue. As a result our people can fail to arrive at a deeper level of understanding of their issue and therefore not fully take ownership for its resolution.
Don’t underestimate the power of being really present and listening to someone with all your senses. It’s rare to feel ‘truly’ listened to, especially in fast moving organisations. So when you do listen this way, people will notice and value the experience.
One other valuable skill as a leader is to learn to live with the silence that can occur after you have asked a question of someone and before they respond. As the person asking the question, this can feel like an eternity of time. However, in most cases the other person is simply processing the question and thinking of their response. They will not notice the silence. As an effective leader, this is the time to notice the silence and to overcome the desire to jump in and ask another question, or to ask the question again. Allow the silence so the individual can respond in their own time. Just as you are about to ask another question is usually when they are ready to respond. Waiting a few seconds more can make all the difference.
So, before you go into that next important meeting or coaching discussion, ask yourself ‘Have I got my listening ears on?’ If not, commit to truly listening to what others are ‘really’ saying. You may be surprised about the impact this can have on the quality of the conversation and the outcomes.