The ability to hear sound comes naturally, but the ability to understand a sound’s meaning (including someone’s words and emotions) is learned. Listening at the level where we understand someone’s meaning doesn’t come easily for leaders who are surrounded with distractions. It takes hard work, especially for those of us who have spent the better part of our lives with our brain (if not our mouths) chattering away.
Yet the ability to really listen is foundational to a leader’s skill in attracting enthusiastic followers. While simple in theory, listening to the level of understanding is rare (just try to remember those times that you felt really listened to). I’ve often wondered how many leaders have been derailed due to an inability or unwillingness to listen yet were told it was for other reasons (“not a team player” or “lack of empathy”). It isn’t easy to reverse a lack of listening; it requires a desire to understand what others are trying to communicate and a great deal of practice.
This kind of listening is the opposite of the “pretend listening” that some leaders are very skilled at — where the chatter in their heads doesn’t stop and they don’t retain what they heard. They nod and have a faraway look in their eyes. If you are one of those, make no mistake that those who are communicating with you know that you are up to. The wandering gaze, the checking of your smartphone and asking others to repeat what they just said give you away. Caught in the act, you aren’t really listening at all. Pretend listening does more harm than good, so it’s best not to bother until you are ready and willing to really listen.
The kind of listening that I think is most important and uncommon is the kind where you open your ears wide, you close your mouth and you turn off the judgments, assumptions, analysis and any other chatter going on in your brain — instead, simply listen. Let’s call this important skill “deep listening,” because it goes beyond the conversations we have every day. Deep listening opens the door for:
- Learning a lot of things about yourself and the person you are listening to.
- Engaging the heart and the mind. Creativity flows. Deeper thinking and new ideas come forward.
- Empathy that makes others feel heard.
- Acknowledging that those you listen to have something important to say.
- Noticing things you haven’t noticed before in a new way.
- Openness to hear what the other is really saying without judgment.
- Resolving conflicts and healing wounds.
- Composure in conversations that are difficult.
- Possibility for solutions that work for everyone involved.
- Space for the heart to say what it needs to.
- Easing of burdens and grudges that have sometimes been carried a long time.
- Seeing a person in a positive way when you may not have seen them that way before.
This kind of listening is rare. However, it’s foundational to the kind of leadership we need now: developing cross-boundary and global relationships; coaching staff to develop and grow; managing conflict; encouraging innovation; making high-quality decisions; and greater collaboration amongst business areas to name but a few.
If you can recall a time that you felt really listened to, you’ll recall how good that felt. And maybe — just maybe — you’ll realize how important deep listening is to your ability to lead at your best.