The role of any leader is just two-fold: to provide a compelling vision of the future that people aspire to attain and, to build trust so those people will be willing to take the journey with you.
Research has identified 10 key practices that build trust in a leader. One of those is listening.
I have learnt much about the skill of listening over the years. Had I been born later than I was I might have been diagnosed with ADHD. My mind is going at a million miles an hour, processing the next task, generating new ideas, thinking about the next thing.
I used to be easily distracted when someone was speaking to me. I’d discretely try and look at the time. I’d get an idea and have to repeat it over and over in my mind so as not to forget it while I waited for the conversation to be over. I didn’t hear what the person sharing their life with me was trying to say. I was ignoring them.
Many of us, including me, listen in order to prepare our response. While the other person is speaking we are ‘patiently’ waiting for our turn to impart our opinion, our argument, our justification, or our ‘wisdom’. After all, leaders are meant to have the answers, aren’t they?
If you were to reflect on the last conversation you had with a person, what percentage of the time were you listening compared to speaking?
Over the years of being a leader I have learnt to minimise what I say. As the leader I don’t have to have all the answers. I have had to work hard at it but great listeners rarely speak. When they do they are primarily asking clarifying questions to gain a better understanding of what the person has said, or, they summarise what they have heard and identified the emotions the person has tried to express. Good listeners speak for less than 20% of the conversation.
Seek first to understand… then to be understood (Covey)
For me this has been really hard, but I have come to realise that more often than not, the other person simply wants to be valued and respected for who they are, for what their reality is and how they feel. They want to be heard. They don’t necessarily want answers or advice, they want to be acknowledged. No one can change how they feel. For them their ‘truth’ is their reality, even if it isn’t my ‘truth’ or reality.
Perhaps my most profound learning has been to realise the healing power of listening. It is an enormous privilege when people share with you their suffering, pain and isolation, their story. To truly listen to another person is to put your existing beliefs at risk. What if the other person is right? What if I have to change my mind? What if I have no answer to this, or I have to apologise?
In Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers wrote:
If you really understand another person, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, without any attempt to make evaluative judgements, you run the risk of being changed yourself. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us face.
The experience of really listening, truly listening has changed me. This is what I have learnt. I try and practise this in every conversation I have.
Rogers C (1961) Becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy; 1995 edition. Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin; page 333.