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Beyond Words: How Listening Shapes Effective Leadership

Beyond Words: How Listening Shapes Effective Leadership

It’s Monday morning.

I sit across the couch from my marketing manager. She’s at my house today because we need a few uninterrupted hours to talk about the week and plan our content strategy.

For the most part, we keep it casual. We settle into the living room, sipping coffee, catching up on the weekend’s events.

After a few minutes she reaches for her iPad, “What did you want to cover this week?”

I take a sip of coffee, my hands barely fit around the mug, “I want to talk about listening.”

She begins to write, “Can you go deeper. What do you mean?”

“Good listening may not mean what you think. I’m talking about the difference between listening to respond and listening to understand.”

I pull out a book labeled, “The Lost Art of Listening” by Michael P. Nichols, “As a woman, and particularly as a woman in business, I very often feel like I am not being listened to.”

As a woman, and particularly as a woman in business, I very often feel I am not being listened to.

And it took me years into my leadership journey to learn that listening is a skillset I needed to cultivate.

Allow me to lay two foundational pieces of groundwork.

First, we need to discuss the wide discrepancy between “relating” and “listening” that is not often clarified.

Let me start with an example. When I share my experience, especially if it’s painful or unjust, people tend to interrupt. They begin handing out advice, or sharing a similar experience. Sometimes they get upset.

They are trying to relate to me in a way that feels validating. Which is fine in theory. But its not true listening.

A good example is, “I’m just upset because you’re upset!”

But when someone let’s their anger take over, the focus is now about them. Their feelings have taken the center stage.

As women we tend to make room for other people’s emotions, so when someone gets “mad” on our behalf, it can feel like they are contributing in a meaningful way in the moment.

It’s only afterwards we get that unsettled and shallow emptiness of not feeling understood.

Second, we need to clarify the difference between “listening to hear” and “listening to respond.”

Let me give another example. I call an employee into my office who’s been struggling. He is having difficulty navigating a relationship with a coworker, and its affecting everyone. It’s time for me as the leader to step in.

I ask my employee to share his side of the story, and he launches into a saga of emotions and jumbled incidents.

I “listen” for a few minutes before curbing his story with questions like “So what are you gonna do about it?” OR “What do we need to adjust so things work between you two?”

I brush aside his feelings to get to the point.

Notice I do not give this employee the honor of being understood.

It’s subtle, as a team we do need a solution. And that desire is right. The difference is my approach does not give honor.

I am not trying to understand this employee. The time I spend “listening” is only to plan my response. Without realizing it, my questions manipulate him into responding the way I want him to, because my questions are guided toward my own desired result.

This is manipulation. It may ‘get things done’, but it’s not a viable strategy for building healthy teams.

These two examples show us that good listeners set aside both their emotional response and their agenda, in order to honor the speaker.

It took me a long time to learn that lesson.

As an educator, business owner and mother, I was always listening to respond. I actually thought it was my job to mold and lead because I so often already “knew” the answer. Countless times I brushed aside the story to get to the most efficient solution and be on to the next thing. I never listened so someone felt understood.

So what changed?

About the same time I began reading “The Lost Art of Listening”, I attended a moderator training for EO.

We had an exercise where we broke off into pairs and allowed each person to share their story. When it was my turn to share, the man I was paired with listened to me without interrupting. For 10 minutes he focused on me. He asked good questions and didn’t let the topic veer away from me and my story.

His behavior caused me to realize no one had truly listened to me in decades.

And I needed to be listened to. Desperately. Not because I was needy or co-dependent. But because I was human.

The author argues that the most validating thing you can do for a person is listen to them.

I got 2 minutes into my personal story and was not interrupted. This settled something in me I didn’t even know was there. The listener’s full and uncompromising attention told me that I was seen, and I was good, and my presence was valuable.

That training solidified for me in experience what the book taught in theory. And feeling validated for the first time caused me to reflect on my behavior.

I was guilty of doing to others the very things that caused me to feel small and unheard.

And I began to wonder, “What would my team look like if they felt more listened to?”

What roadblocks could we get past if this changed?

Would we all “settle” as I had?

There was only one way to find out. I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to set this new example with my team.

As I continued to read the book and make the necessary behavior changes, I was struck by how much work it was. Not because sitting quietly is hard per se, but because my previous definition of listening was selfish.

True listening is hard.

When done right, listening is a self-sacrificing activity. I lay aside my desire to be done sooner or get the response I want. I put down my expectations of someone or a situation. I don’t have an agenda or a set outcome.

I let go of my control over space and time when listening. And people can FEEL it when you do.

Listening is giving away your whole world for the sake of someone else. And that is why it’s the most validating thing you can do for a person. You in essence, give someone the space to exist in your world with no reason aside from the fact that they matter.

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