Is Leadership Listening a Lost Art?

This question is not reserved for those who hold high positions on an org chart or a title on a business card.  You don’t need a title to be a leader. Whether leading yourself or an organization, a family or a community, you have a sphere of influence and from that influence you impact and lead others

But how well you do depends upon a delicate skill: listening.

Consider these scenarios:

  • In a client’s office, I watch an executive continuing to text while he mumbles an answer to his senior vice president.  
  • Life-long friends part ways because the divisive political climate fuels conversations that become bitter and antagonistic.
  • My daughter Heather comes to me to express concern that she is going to have to facilitate the conversation between two fighting colleagues.  I offer advice that is not taken.

In all of these cases, hearing was used but listening was not! Let me explain.

Hearing is a mechanical process that happens through our ears. LISTENING is a more nuanced activity that requires so much more. Hearing is automatic whereas listening is a learned and practiced skill. Listening requires attending behavior, reflection, paraphrasing and astute questioning plus an ability to focus on what the other says versus your response.

In the example with Heather, I realized why she had not taken my advice. I had not deeply listened to what she was really expressing: apprehension that if it goes badly, she could be the one in trouble. Before offering advice, I should have probed deeper. The fact that she’s my daughter might have compounded the issue but doesn’t excuse it!

Technology has also created barriers as seen with the texting executive who pays only cursory attention to his colleague. How often have you observed people in a restaurant where no one is talking, much less listening? Their heads are focused on their smart phones—which frankly can lead to dumb people!

Consider practicing these three rules:

  1. PUT AWAY THE SMART PHONE when talking/listening to someone. Besides being rude, it also results in misunderstandings, repetition of information, and generally lousy communication. This also applies to talking on a phone. Do only one thing. Talk or text but not both.
  2. ASK CLARIFYING QUESTIONS and then, ANSWER THE QUESTION.  If you don’t have the information, say so. But what we sense when someone skates around a question is dishonesty. Trust is abandoned.
  3. DIFFICULT, DIVISIVE CONVERSATION REQUIRES THE LISTENING SKILLS OF A DEAF PERCUSSIONIST. Specifically, we can all learn from Dame Evelyn Glennie. She has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12 and has taught herself to hear with parts of her body other than her ears. This woman is a virtuoso and performs with classical orchestras around the world.   In watching her TED TALK I found subtle but powerful lessons about how to listen, particularly when it is difficult.

Glennie's lessons include:

Take off your shoes. While she does this to feel the vibration through her feet, there is a powerful message working here. Metaphorically, if both parties take off their shoes, you are both grounded. Without “shoes” we are on a more-or-less equal playing field.

Assume good intent. While Evelyn might not like every sheet of music she sees, she also realizes that it can appeal to others. Sometimes, agreeing to disagree is a graceful way to end a difficult conversation.

Seek to interpret, not to translate. I find this a powerful concept. Translation of music is simply looking at a page of music and playing it exactly as it is written. Interpretation, however, is digging deeper, trying to sense what the composer might have had in mind but also to let the notes resonate within one’s body.  You can “translate words” and come up with a flat, soulless conversation. But by interpretation, you begin to ask yourself, “What of this might be true for me? How am I feeling right now? Can we “play” this music in a different way? What outcome do I want us to have?”

Decide which matters most: the music (the words) or the musicians (the relationship). Listen deeply to your heart and how you might feel when “the music” stops. Just as songs stay in our brain and we find ourselves humming them over and over, so do words. If the relationship matters, then the tune better be one you want to hum.

Bottom line, when it comes to leading self and others, one of the single most important skills is the ability to listen.  If you wish to grow your sphere of influence, vote wisely because the “ayes” don’t have it. The ears do.

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