A story I once heard illustrates something important about listening.
The story went that a man was on the way to visit a friend. As he rounded the corner onto his friend’s street, he could hear his friend yelling at his son. When his friend opened the door he said to him, “wow, I could hear you at the other end of the road!” His friend replied, “that’s strange. My son was about six inches away from me and couldn’t hear a word I was saying!”
This little story illustrates, quite starkly, the difference between hearing and listening. Listening is a skill which, if learnt well, could save you avoidable problems and challenges. This is something I have had to learn throughout my life and continue to learn today. My natural tendency when someone is having a conversation with me is to be thinking either about what might be happening after this conversation or thinking about where the conversation might end up. When we listen to someone and don’t pay attention, then we signal that what they are saying is not important, inferring that they themselves are also unimportant.
The first thing to say about listening is be present. Being present requires you to be in the moment, listening to the person’s words, their tone and their body language. (The latter being a little more challenging of late.) Being present may at times mean being quiet. it’s about asking follow-up questions that are less about offering solutions as they are about probing for understanding. It is amazing what you can learn in those situations. At the leadership level this kind of active listening can mean the difference between success or failure, for you and the people you lead.
I think most leaders would say that they want to be approachable. The way in which we listen as leaders dictates what that looks like. We may unintentionally give off that we don’t care or don’t want to hear about something or someone by how engaged we are with what people are saying.
Leaders can at times get stuck in a bubble where they are not hearing all that is going on inside the organisation they lead. It is good for leaders to walk the floor, not to catch people out but to engage with people and get a sense of what is going on. Informal conversations like these will achieve a level of engagement that cannot be done whilst remaining in your office. More than that, it opens you up to new ideas and may serve to give you an early warning of potential problems.
Remember that the people you work with are more than who they are at work. They have many other things outside of work that can affect their performance. Listening means taking note of those things and remembering to check back on how things are going. You may need to develop a system for taking note of names to do that! And be mindful of your environment. In an office context, the leader’s desk can be a barrier to conversation and can make you less approachable. Try and remove the barrier by sitting in a couple of easy chairs which put people at more ease.
“A brave leader is someone who says I see you. I hear you. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m going to keep listening and asking questions.” Brené Brown
There will always be difficult things to hear when we engage in listening. The important thing is to remember that these are opportunities to improve and become a more effective leader. Listening is an opportunity to learn more about yourself and more about the person you are talking with. This will lead to greater understanding. Better decisions can then be made that benefit everyone.
It is amazing how much wisdom you can gain from something as simple as paying attention to the person speaking to you.
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash