Real Life Leading #19:
Listening as Leadership
My older daughter and I goofing off when we're supposed to be doing a photo session.
One night this past week, I received an amazing compliment from my teenage daughter. I had tucked her in at bedtime (I’ll keep doing this as long as she lets me), and then she and I had started talking. After ten minutes, I realized she really did need to go to sleep because she had school the next morning. I mentioned this to her, and she responded with something that brought tears to my eyes. She said, “But Dad, I don’t want to go to sleep yet.” When I asked her why not, she replied, “Because I like talking to you.”
A day earlier I had an amazing conversation with my younger daughter as well, and as I reflected on those two conversations, I realized that I hadn’t actually said much during either one. Perhaps that’s why the girls enjoyed those particular exchanges so much; and isn’t that true of all of us? Many of us love to talk with people, to share stories, to make people laugh or feel whatever we felt in the moment we’re reliving through the stories. If you're at all like me, though, what we're less good at and what we often enjoy less is being a good listener to other people’s stories, especially when we have stories of our own that we want to share.
Today, I want to encourage you to consciously apply yourself to becoming a better listener for two reasons: one, everyone needs a good listener in their lives, and if we can be that for people, so much the better; and two, being a good listener is crucial to being a good leader. It is through listening that we discover the chinks in our organization’s armor. It is through listening that we discover what problems need to be solved and who may have unexpected skill sets that can help to solve them. It is through listening that we learn, and if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know how big I am on learning as a leader.
Three quick thoughts on why listening is so crucial to great leadership:
1) Listening forces us to focus on other people, not just on ourselves.
My younger daughter and I on another photo adventure!
When I was talking with my younger daughter, I had to force myself to not do my typical parent move of “Here’s the problem; here’s the solution, now let’s move on.” Instead, my wife has encouraged me to really just listen sometimes. As I’ve gotten better at that, I’ve discovered that many people aren’t looking for solutions. They’re simply looking for someone to listen to them as they share whatever is on their heart. If we’re going to listen well then we have to actively pay attention. This means putting our phone or other device away, looking people in the eye, and really focusing on what they are saying and feeling. And that goes a long way toward relationship building.
2) Listening helps us empathize with what others are going through.
Have you ever told someone a story about a huge event in your life, only to hear your ‘listener’ utter a noncommittal grunt at the end? I know I have been the ‘grunter’ more often than I care to admit, and that happens when I wasn’t really as interested in listening as I should have been. When we truly listen, we connect emotionally with the story-teller, and that allows us to empathize with them as they recount their tale. I have found this is extremely important when talking with my wife and my daughters, especially as they have gotten older. Bullies at school, successes in the classroom, problems with friends, joy at some award; whatever the story is about, if they feel something, I want to feel it with them so they know that I care. I’m very blessed at work to have bosses who listen this way, and it makes me a more committed employee because I know that when I’m dealing with something, they get it, and it matters to them too.
3) Listening lets us learn.
This one may seem a bit self-evident, but it’s worth saying anyway. When we listen well, we learn: we learn history, we learn economics, we learn about other people’s personality and preferences. At soccer practice the other day, my assistant coach (whose father started our program ten years ago) began telling the current players about how different things were then and contrasting where we are now. This was done in an effort to help the current group appreciate the work done by previous players, and it opened their eyes to how blessed we all are now. Listening helps us learn, and that learning also teaches us humility. I know that when I listen to my daughters I'm often surprised at some of the things they tell me; sometimes it's because they're so different than I was, and sometimes it's because I've forgotten what it was like to be an adolescent. Whatever the reason, I'm always amazed at what I learn when I actively listen to them.
When we listen, we are purposely focusing on other people. This helps us be more empathetic, and it also helps us to learn about other people as well as ourselves. How much can this transform culture in the workplace? Tremendously so. Imagine an organization of people who lead from a place of understanding because they’ve been actively listening to each other: collaboration increases, productivity increases, morale increases. Imagine a family where the parents listen to the children as they recount their days, and as the children listen as their parents share the wisdom of their years. As a teacher and coach, I’ve found that one of the best things I can do to build great relationships with my students and players is simply to listen. As an employee, manager, owner, or entrepreneur, if you listen, you’ll be amazed at how it can transform your world too.
Action Step: this week, make it a priority to resist the urge to interrupt when someone is telling you a story. Instead, follow up a story with at least two questions, to show the storyteller that you were listening and interested. Then email me and let me know how it went.
Have a great week!