Most people cannot listen until they have been heard. As a consequence, wise leaders who want to affect thinking and behavior learn to first be a great listener to those they aim to impact.
Holding back from jumping-in when a key point comes to mind in the middle of a fast-paced conversation can be a challenge but it is also essential in order to avoid being written-off as one who does not listen or understand, especially if the leader is new to the organization.
The following steps help a leader stay in-tune and attuned and dramatically improve their odds of success:
- Pay attention. When someone talks, give undivided attention and do not interrupt. While s/he is talking you may think you know what s/he is going to say and what you want to say next rushes to mind. In that instant you experience an irrepressible urge to interrupt and jump-in. Following the urge causes many bright, successful senior executives to often unintentionally and repeatedly use the power of their position to hijack conversations. The pattern wears on those in the organization and soon the leader is written-off as one who never listens and who does not get, or care about, those s/he leads.
- Don’t jump-in. Set thoughts aside in your mind or make a note of what you plan to share when the time comes. Force yourself, instead, to concentrate on precisely what is being said. Do not evaluate what is being said and do not begin to formulate a response. Just listen word-for-word with the objective to repeat back exactly what you heard to be sure you got it right. To force yourself to listen, try to write-down what is being said exactly as you hear it in the moment. Strive to hear and understand each word as well as the overall point being made.
- Say what was said. When the speaker stops, ask for permission to repeat back what was heard. Follow with an opening phrase such as: “What I heard you say is:…” and then say back what you heard, word-for-word. When done, ask for confirmation that you heard correctly.
- If what you repeated back matches what s/he intended to say then, upon confirmation, you are now in a great position to be heard and it is time to make your point. With any luck the listener will repeat back what you say, just as you modeled, and the practice of effective communication begins.
- If what you repeat back is not what s/he said, invite him/her to provide corrections. Edit what you said before and say it again. Repeat this process until you get it right. Once you have it right go on to say what you have to offer.
The process may at first seem arduous and that it unnecessarily slows down communication but, while it does slow the conversation down, it increases efficiency because things generally only need to be said once and are more likely to be fully understood which leads to faster buy-in, understanding, commitment, and action.
If you have a reputation for not listening and want to change to be more effective as a leader, follow these steps:
- Admit by saying out loud, first to yourself and then to those you work with (including bosses, peers, and subordinates), that you are an interrupter and that you would like to change.
- Ask those you work with for permission to change, both one-on-one and in groups. Doing so will bring you great respect and admiration. It is easier to do than it sounds and it is a great way to endear yourself to the community you seek both to be part of and to lead.
- Earnestly invite those you work with to help you change by both letting you know when you exhibit bad behavior and by complementing you when you exhibit the target behavior.
- Make a visible gesture both to add levity but also to make it crystal clear you are serious about changing. One executive, for example, placed a sign in front of him during meetings to invite those present to tell him when he was not acting in accord with his stated desire to behave properly. As a result, he dramatically made the point to himself and to others, got everyone in on it, and remarkably quickly became a far more effective leader.
Becoming a good listener is hard work; especially after a long period of success without having to think about when to say whatever comes to mind. When the stakes are high it can be well worth the trouble and may even lead to an entirely new level of performance and growth.