Well it’s pretty simple- Not listening well
While it’s a simple skill we take for granted, like seeing and feeling (and taste and smell for some special people), listening is possibly the most important skill a leader can develop.
Many people will at this time perhaps start arguing and say that’s too simple, that leaders should learn “To lead”, or learn the business or negotiation, or be charismatic. I am not saying those things are unimportant. All I am saying is that leaders work with teams, and when one works with a diverse group of people, it is easy to only hear that which you want to hear and miss a lot of what is being communicated to him/her.
this happens because all of us have developed beliefs and assumptions which become short cuts to truths in our lives. These are the result of social learning or even genetic inheritance.
this listening and seeing and thinking patterns make us who we are and give us a totally unique perspective to the world.
So if you lead a team of 10 people, as a leader you now have 11 of these unique perspectives. This means every word you say is filtered through these 11 perspectives and chances of you having understood perfectly what the next person has said the first are 0.09%…think abot that for a while.
So does it then surprise you then that progress is hampered? conflict is prevalent? and just general misunderstanding? because this is what happens when leaders are not listening well enough.
So what does god listening look like?
well, there are a lot of theories and models that one can look at, which all point to the same thing, that listening is a complex process and that it’s easier to misunderstand each other than to understand, and that most of the time what many people think they heard, is usually their own thoughts beliefs and assumptions.
I like making complex things simple, without hopefully watering down the intent.
There are essentially three levels of listening that we do:
– Listening for facts
– Listening for feelings
– Listening for Intent
and i have listed them above in the order of depth and complexity. The most basic listening that we do everyday, in conversations and even when one is watching television of listening to music, is the level of “facts”- this can be a bit of a misnomer because “Facts” in this instance actually means something closer to detail- or information.
So when somebody is telling you a story, you are already curious to hear the details of the story- perhaps because you relate to the story or because there’s some meaning in it for you. So essentially you are not really listening for the other person, you are listening for yourself. You have heard the phrase ; many people don’t listen with the intention to understand, they listen with the intention to respond. that’s because most of the time we have a vested interest in that which is being communicated. interestingly, the worst listeners among us, as soon as they hear that the facts don’t fit their own story, they stop listening completely and start responding or otherwise getting distracted and doing other things- like fiddling.
There’s nothing wrong with this level of listening, if you are in a court of law, or are hearing the music for the firts time for example, it is Essential. It is however not enough, and it could sometimes leave the person that is really looking to be heard resentful and demotivated.
So when somebody is telling you a story, you are already curious to hear the details of the story- perhaps because you relate to the story or because there’s some meaning in it for you. So essentially you are not really listening for the other person, you are listening for yourself. You have heard the phrase ; many people don’t listen with the intention to understand, they listen with the intention to respond. that’s because most of the time we have a vested interest in that which is being communicated. interestingly, the worst listeners among us, as soon as they hear that the facts don’t fit their own story, they stop listening completely and start responding or otherwise getting distracted and doing other things- like fiddling, looking away, etc.
All of us communicate with ALL of our bodies such that our words and our bodies and even our actions are aligned- however it takes a certain level of attention for a leader to hear the feelings. Because I am in the business of listening, it has been rewarding to hear people saying “I felt that you are with me, I felt that you get me” after I had played back not just what they said, but the perceived feelings and emotions that accompanied the words.
The last and deeper level of listening is the level of listening for intent. At this level the listener is making dynamic conclusions about what is being said and not said, continuously adding more data, adjusting meaning and integrating information.
It is obvious from the above description that the deeper the listener goes into listening, the more attention is required and the more work is required to make sure that what has been heard is correct. The deeper one goes, the easier it is to make a mistake.
On the corollary, the deeper one goes, the more connected the listener and the speaker feel. Because if you are listening carefully, and you put in enough work as a leader at these three levels in an integrated way, the speaker will really feel like “YOU GET THEM”- and this will increase/improve rapport and enhance followership and impact.
This is the reason that people don’t listen well enough- because listening is actually hard work, that requires one to put in a bit more effort to get more than just the ordinary results.
So what is the how? What are some of the things a leader can do.
well first it helps for a leader to pay attention to their own internal dialogue. While you are having loud internal dialogue, you are more than likely missing what’s happening on the outside. I always advise leaders to observe themselves for a few days first to realise their own listening or non-listening style. For example, my non-listening style takes two forms: A point I am already trying to make because ‘I am sure I am right” – and this is usually during a debate. And/or a drifting mind if I feel the subject on hand is boring. As a result I have learned to catch these when they happen- and change the self-talk to: You are not listening right now- what’s happening? That almost automatically switches me back to the person in front of me, listening like I need to be nowhere else for the duration of the conversation. Do you know what your non-listening positions are?
I also encourage leaders in the process of observing their listening positions, to pay attention at what level are they listening all the time. After a while they start re-calibrating their listening to go deeper.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned in my life is that the greatest learning doesn’t happen in the presence of an answer, but in the presence of a question. So I am very big on questions. I find that by asking questions, it forces me to speak less and listen more. And even more importantly asking the question about the last thing the speaker said. So if a speaker has said: “It took me 25 minutes to find parking into this building” – I will almost invariably ask a question, “25 Minutes? Are you serious?”. it sounds stupid at first, but once it becomes a habit, it works great!
The same question can be asked about feelings, and about intent? “So how do you feel about that?”. many times people are uncomfortable talking about their feelings right off the bat, especially if you are perceived to be a stranger or if you don’t have a close relationship. So you can start easy by just stating the feelings you may be hearing “It sounds like that made you really cross!” or “Wow, that must have been terrifying/frustrating/exciting.
Finally, paraphrasing and summarizing what you heard is always a great idea. This ensures 1) that your understanding and that of the speaker are aligned and 2) it demonstrates to your speaker that you have indeed valued their presence.
It can be pretty scary for your colleagues at first when you try these techniques, but if you do them consistently you get better than average results in followership, productivity and low conflict. Not to mention YOUR own learning and understanding of the people around you.
Do you still think you listen well? Let’s talk!