Have you ever been talking to someone and felt they were not really listening to you? Perhaps their eyes glaze over, they are constantly checking their iPhone or they are frantically writing something down so they will be prepared to ‘interject’ and interrupt with their own juicy bit of insight or knowledge. To say this is frustrating, and often insulting, is an understatement. As leaders, one of the most important yet least applied skills is the art of listening. It takes discipline to remember and integrate true active, engaged and honest listening into our daily practice when working with others.
There are a few observations I have made relative to those leaders who have truly honed the art of genuine listening:
1. They mine for gold. When I was attending Georgetown University to attain my leadership coaching certificate several years ago,listening was a primary focus of our learning. We were encouraged to listen for the unspoken. We were taught to pay attention to tone, position of body, and use of inflection. We were encouraged to hone in on words and language which were used. Recently, I read a compelling Harvard Business Review article on listening, and the author referenced a practice which I thought was excellent. He suggests when engaging in a conversation, make two columns on a piece of paper – on the left note the salient points or issues the other person is sharing, on the right keep a list of key words which the person uses to describe the situation. This enabled him to probe and continue to qualify the points the other person is making using the words the other person used. By using this practice, the other individual feels heard. A simple and powerful practice, yet from my experience, seldom used.
2. They take a breath. Many leaders with whom I work have a hard time taking the time to let others vet issues. They have a sense of urgency to take action, regardless if they have all the information or have heard every one’s perspective. Sure, there will always be a time when leaders just have to pull the rip chord; however, I will argue that without slowing down and listening to key points of an issue, we risk learning about important factors and certainly miss the opportunity to build buy-in from other team members through hearing their point of view. Yes, it takes time, and it also takes patience – especially for the typical Type A personality executive. Yet, when we press the pause button, solicit input from others, the payoff in the long run far outweighs the alternative approach.
3. They embody humility and compassion when they have a conversation. Humble listening is a term Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, has integrated into one of his most desired leadership qualities for his succession planning. The ability to set aside your own agenda, your point of view, and your need to be heard – to humbly listen to another opens the leader to new, fresh, unfiltered ideas. This takes discipline and strength. Listening with compassion to a point of view which could be drastically different from your own is a talent and a gift. Reserving judgment, encouraging authentic dialogue while maintaining an objective perspective can provide an incredible opening for rich, uncensored discussions ripe with new ideas.
True, humble, compassionate listening is an art hard to find in many management ranks. Yet, when a leader realizes the gold to be mined through the most basic conversations, he/she has discovered a secret to becoming the most effective of leaders.