It is a truth universally acknowledged that great leaders listen to their teams. And the internet provides a host of blogs, posts and articles on how to hone that vital ‘skill’. But, like most things, when you do it because you’re told to or because you think you should, it doesn't really work as well as when you actually feel its inherent value. Do you 'feel' listening? A few questions to challenge listening leaders...
Do you think of listening as a ‘skill’? At the risk of being controversial - listening isn’t a skill. It’s about being in an emotional state. Being genuinely interested, curious. Caring. Wholeheartedly. At its most basic - caring about the content of the message. And – when it comes to listening as a leader – caring about the person and their feelings too.
Is it about you? If you 'listen' in order to show (yourself or them) that you’re a good leader and listener (or, worse, to tick a box and procedurally cover your back) you’ve missed the point. It’s not about you.
Do you think about how to show you’re doing great listening? If – while someone is speaking - you think about how to demonstrate you are listening, you’re probably not listening. A listenee can practically ‘see’ the thought bubble appear above your head when you think about ‘good eye contact’, ‘open body language’, or that other terrible cliché of active listening - the “nod-and-um-hmm”. If you authentically care (see 1. above), the rest will almost certainly follow. Think about a time when you listened to a troubled loved-one or friend, or when you were genuinely excited about the information someone was sharing with you. When you care, making time, avoiding distractions, giving attention, asking questions (etc) comes naturally.
Is their opinion equal to your own? This is tricky. We usually believe that how we do it and how we see it is right… or we’d do it and see it differently (of course). But if you have a conversation with someone in your team knowing that your way, your approach, your perspective, your decision (whatever it might be) is the right one when you start – what’s the point? You’re just paying lip service to listening.
Who decides when the conversation is over? If it’s you who terminates the chat, because you’ve covered what you wanted and you believe the listenee has nothing more of value to add, you may be damaging trust. It's worse when leaders do this tacitly, sometimes unintentionally, with a withdrawal of attention. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of such an unspoken 'dismissal' knows how negative it feels. If you think someone is going on rather too much, ask yourself why might that be? What is it they need from you? If you find you get bored of listening – revisit 1. and 2. above.
The proof of the pudding. What happens next? It'll depend on the conversation of course. But if something was understood and agreed between you, it matters whether it happens. Does anything change? Do you follow up? Take it forward? Or explain why not? If the other person believed in the conversation (and therefore in you as a leader), it will matter to them greatly. If you never mention the conversation again, or fail to do what you agreed, or unilaterally change your plan... then the fact that you appeared to have been listening at the time could be fairly catastrophic for trust (particularly if they relied on what you said). In some cases - they might just be having their next conversation with another employer…