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Listening as an exercise in self-awareness and effective leadership
Great listening skill is the hallmark of a great leader. Yet, it’s one of the most underrated skills that’s rarely practiced effectively on a consistent basis. As a leader you’re exposed to a wide set of stakeholders with whom you meet on a regular basis. These cast characters don’t often speak the same language. Your job in these interactions is to primarily listen. You listen to obtain information, to understand, to support and to learn. You also listen to “decode” the true meaning of the conversation. While what you say is equally important, listening is what forms the basis of your perspectives and actions.
Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning suggests that you only remember between 25 percent and 50 percent of what we hear. More than half the information conveyed is lost. Imagine that! Hence the emphasis during the presentation on telling them what you’re about to tell them, tell them, and recap what you told them - the framework is centered on the premise that through the preparation most important parts of your message are conveyed effectively with a high confidence. Not all types of communication have this luxury.
What if we can all become better listeners? We can then improve our productivity, as well as our ability to influence, persuade and negotiate. What's more, we can anticipate and avoid conflicts and misunderstandings. We can break down perceived workplace silos and transform it to “fire on all cylinders”.
With so much hinging on listening skills, there is no dearth of tips and tricks on how to perfect this craft. Here is a great primer on active listening. I don’t want to rehash great content that’s already out there. Please spend some time on doing your own research as well and learn about various listening techniques. What I wish to address here is the mindset to become a great listener. From my experience there are four major psychological approaches to listening, and that’s what we’re going to discuss here.
Listening to Respond
Almost all of us have been guilty of this. We often (and mistakenly) perceive communication as a plea to our help. So we rush to respond. What’s worse? In this mindset, we’re preparing our responses in real time as we’re listening. Naturally, we’re not paying 100% attention to what’s said by prioritizing what we have to say. This is both ironic and tragic as the primary goal of the communicator - to communicate effectively the information (s)he wanted to share - is utterly lost. Hybrid/Remote working environment makes this even more challenging as it’s difficult to assess when the communication has come to a natural close. What we experience as a result is responses based on incomplete information often at the cost of interrupting the very communication. Leaders also view their jobs as solving the problems so there is a deep rooted itch to respond to issues they hear when they’re listening. This is very difficult behavior to overcome and requires great discipline. You need to create a mental space between listening and acting. This enables effectiveness on both aspects.
Listening to Corroborate Your Views
This is another trap most of us have fallen into. We prefer meetings with an agenda. It helps bring focus into the discussion. We also encourage pre-reads of various artifacts. This results in us forming a hypothesis around issues/solutions. All of this is great, but then we go to a conversation and practice selective listening. This essentially means that you’re probing for and paying attention to only the information that corroborates with your views and biases. You learn nothing new from this conversation as you’re already committed to certain views and you’re actively filtering out everything else. What a waste! Even outside of the workplace, idea polarization is taking place. To gain more clicks and views, social media algorithms are catering to you largely the kind of viewpoints you already agree with, and actively hiding/deprioritizing viewpoints that you’d find challenging. This is a very serious problem as it limits our perspective and erodes empathy and understanding.
Listening to Understand
This is where we start to make progress. To approach a conversation with an intent to understand is a great mindset to have. At the very least, you’re not actively forming responses, or rushing to judgements. A great listening exercise is also an exercise in understanding. And only by understanding every perspective can you get closer to the truth. Leaders need to act on the most complete set of information, and by approaching the conversations with an understanding mindset allows for more ideas to flow freely. You, as a leader, can go back, take everything you heard into consideration, formulate your own opinion and initiate an action. This is what I’d call thoughtful leadership. There is no better example than President J.F.K’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis. The fate of the world, as we know, was hung in the balance. Quoting from this article, “Under unimaginable pressure—as the Soviets raced to complete construction of the missile sites—the President refused to be rushed.” “The peaceful resolution of the crisis is considered to be one of President Kennedy’s greatest achievements.”
Listening to be Wrong
Can we do better? What if we approach each interaction not just to understand but to actively seek where we could be wrong. This puts us in a mindset of critically evaluating all views and biases, and fosters the environment of radical openness. I’ve said this before - for a leader, it’s not important to be right all the time, but they have to get it right most of the time. Only by practicing radical openness to new ideas can you put yourself in a position to do the right most thing in any situation. On occasions where you’re wrong, admitting your mistake also opens the door to creating a culture of transparency and vulnerability. You empower the team to take manageable risk while providing psychological safety. The benefits of this method if adopted widely can truly unlock the organization’s potential. Just imagine - what would an organization be like where every interaction leaves everybody who participated in that interaction with broader knowledge and perspective every single time!