What I find striking about us, humans, is that when we talk about communication we refer to a diversity of ways that allow us to express ourselves – speaking, gesticulating, dancing, singing, painting, drawing, even simply making eye contact. All good forms of communication, all helping us to express who we are, what we want to say, what we like or don’t like, how we think.
We’ll definitely talk about how we can express ourselves better as leaders – in Episode 2(B).
But in this episode of our leadership series, we’re not going to talk about communication as we most generally perceive it. We’re going to turn tables and start with one form of communication that we usually disregard, dislike. downgrade. deny. It’s called listening.
Because leaders who don’t listen, don’t really communicate. They merely express themselves, nothing more. Communication involves some sort of a dialogue. And that’s an essential step to take when you’re a leader, because then you can include all opinions, perceptions, ideas, plans, in the big picture. Which leads to engagement, loyalty, teamwork, all that good stuff we want.
But listening is tricky, right? It’s tougher than we openly admit, hence its minuscule place in the hierarchy of communication skills we want to develop.
Because simply nodding does not guarantee listening – so, what does?
‘No, that’s not what I meant’, or ‘You’re not listening to me’, or ‘I’ve just told you that’. Familiar? Not that this ever happened to any of us here, I just happened to hear other people complaining.
Why does this happen, when all we did was listen. I mean, you know, we thought we were listening, because we were nodding our head (repeatedly), humming as well, and even maintaining eye contact.
So why is it then that, at some point in the conversation, we get this feedback that we weren’t, in fact, listening.
What is listening and what makes it so difficult?
First off, we tend to treat listening as this passive thing we do (or don’t have to do?) when the other is talking. We look at it as ‘let them talk, while I can think about my ‘groceries shopping list’’. Because we do that, I mean, our brain does it. Oh, not our brain, other people’s.
The brain is busy thinking about the next actions we need to take, even when we don’t want it to. But well, our brain has its own mind and doesn’t care about what we want it to do. This is how, especially when we think we don’t have to do anything, we’re always busy thinking about something. One of the most difficult things to achieve is to clear our minds, not think about anything, and those of you who meditate or ever tried to, perfectly know this feeling. Because there’s always a buzz, a hum, a thought, a fraction of an action hidden right there, in a corner of our mind. That’s how, instead of listening to what the other is saying, we’re busy trying to decipher our own thoughts all the while.
Second, we prefer to tell our story rather than listen to someone else’s. OK, maybe not us reading this post here, of course, but most of the people do. Why? Simply because when I’m telling my story I’m more involved, I recreate the events, which makes me also re-experience some of the feelings, which, in turn, makes me so involved in the story. When another person tells us their story, it’s more difficult to get involved, we’re strangers to that story and it takes time to get a grip of what it is about. And unless the story teller makes it engaging (but that’s another story), we find ourselves thinking ‘shopping lists’ all over again.
The ‘shopping list’ is our metaphor for everything else we’re thinking about: what am I going to respond to what they’ve just said now (which is already what they just said a while ago, because I don’t know what they’re saying now anymore, as I’m thinking about what I am going to say); piles of work, night out with friends, things I need to start doing right after reading this article, you get the picture.
Third, we’re human. Leaders or not, we can only focus for a little while, because we cannot help but pay attention to everything that’s going on around us. Wait, what? Yes, focus is the opposite of attention. Focus requires a lot of effort and us pushing every distraction aside. Focus happens especially when we’re in flow, ‘in the zone’, because that’s when we’re engaged, involved, motivated.
Focus means I don’t pay attention. Wait, what?
Focus means I zoom in to you while you’re speaking, without paying attention to who comes in the room, to what happens in my mind, to the building shaking because there’s an earthquake. But, as I said, we can only focus for a while, and under these specific circumstances of involvement and motivation. And we already decided, we love our own stories more than other people’s stories. Which is why they don’t keep us motivated and engaged enough for us to get into that state of focus.
So, what can we do?
It’s something we already do, just not all the time and maybe without being aware of it.
Think about someone you care about, telling you they got the job they wanted.
First, hear their voice and how they say it. They are usually enthusiastic, and enthusiasm is catching. When we respond, we do it without thinking about our shopping list. When we hear ‘hey, I got that job’ we naturally go ‘wow, I’m so happy for you’.
We match their state of mind, because we care. Caring makes us focus on what they are saying. When I care about your story, I am there, with you, in your story. I bring my story there, because I can relate to yours now. And that’s how we can build a combined story – the story of ‘how you got that job and how we celebrated together’. Because when I care, I can focus, and that’s what makes me capable to understand: what you’re saying and also a bit of how you’re feeling.
So now that I’m focused, I am interested, and the next thing I know is I’m asking you for more details: what will you be doing, when do you start, do they train you, how much do they pay you (ok, maybe not that, we leave that for the shopping list).
It’s a natural reaction for us, to ask questions when we listen. I mean, when we truly listen. And often we forget that listening is a verb, not a noun, that it’s an action, and it’s very much active. It’s not that I don’t have to do anything and ‘just listen’. On the contrary, there’s a lot of things I do that tell you I’m listening.
Think about it: when we care and focus and truly listen, what do we do, apart from nodding and humming: we ask questions, we go back to make sure we didn’t misunderstand, we ask for clarifications, we summarize, we investigate further, we ask for the next steps.
It goes all the way back when, as children, someone was reading a story to us and, because we were captivated by it, we wanted to know more, hear more, see more. Or maybe more recently when, at some point in our lives, we asked the question: ‘so let me get this straight, are you dumping me?’. That’s one piece of active listening! And all because I cared.
So there, we already listen properly, when we care.
The ‘recipe’ I am proposing is: start with the heart and zoom in on the mind (you add your own ingredients, in the quantities that work for you).
When I care, I will instantly focus, and when I focus, I will be able to hear what you’re saying and truly understand you. I will nod and hum, and I will also ask questions, summarize, clarify, agree next steps, maybe even take notes and make sure you get them, too.
Once I listen to understand, I build the foundation for a long-term relationship.
At the end of the day, ‘shopping lists’ aside, we all crave to be:
- valued (or, even better, loved).
And then, once we’ve truly listened, we get a ‘that’s exactly what I meant’, or ‘thanks for listening to me’, or ‘nobody else asked me that, thank you for checking’.
That’s the magic moment when you’ve opened-up a whole new world to a healthy relationship with the people in your team. That’s when you, as the leader, having the vision and having listened to people, can start planning your journey together, because you know you are all in it wholeheartedly.
Because when somebody listens to me and understands me, I feel I matter. Don’t you?
If you’re further interested in this topic, you may also want to watch and read: