Good communication underlies many of the key responsibilities of leaders, such as setting direction and goals, motivating and inspiring employees, and building high-performing teams. Listening well is one aspect of strong communication, and it takes focus and intention. Leaders at some of the most successful companies in the world agree. Meg Whitman, President and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, says in her book The Power of Many, “I believe that being willing and able to actively listen is a vital skill for any leader.” And General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt told students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, “I’ve never met one successful person in any field of life who wasn’t a great listener.”

The problem is that many of us don’t listen very well. Even worse, most leaders don’t listen well. In a 2013 survey conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business Center for Leadership Development and Research, corporate boards said that listening was one of the skills least mentioned as strengths of their CEOs. One of the co-authors of the report, Stephen Miles, says, “The fact that [listening was] in the bottom three means that there is a real problem.” He states that instead, listening should be among the top five CEO strengths since it is a “critical component to excelling in the CEO role.”

The good news is that listening is a skill leaders can start to improve right away. As a start, I find it helpful to distinguish between different types of listening. In Co-Active Coaching, Laura Whitworth et al. define Level I and Level II listening. Level I listening is distinguished by a focus on ourselves. In Level I listening, we have lots of internal chatter, and we are trying to figure out how what the speaker is saying relates to ourselves. In Level II listening, the focus is on the other person. Our awareness shifts away from our internal experience to interacting with curiosity to what the speaker is saying.

It’s not that Level I listening is “bad” and Level II listening is “good.” Whitworth gives the example of hearing the news that your flight has been delayed. Of course, you will automatically be in Level I listening and have a focus on yourself. When can I get another flight? When will I finally get home? What is the impact on the rest of my schedule? The point of distinguishing between the two levels of listening is that we often think we approach listening at Level II when in fact we are really in Level I.

In Language and the Pursuit of Happiness, Chalmers Brothers additionally explains these two degrees of listening as “listening with the intent to respond” vs. “listening to understand.” One of my favorite quotes is what he goes on to say: “Often, we are listening to the wrong conversation.” Meaning much of the time we are so distracted in our heads by formulating what we want to say next, or preparing a rebuttal, or even thinking of something else happening elsewhere, there is no way we are actually listening to the person right in front of us.

When I teach seminars on leadership skills, I challenge the audience to choose one conversation a day to practice Level II listening. I offer these tips for engaging in Level II listening:

  • Don’t multi-task – give the speaker your full attention; put electronic devices away, turn off your phone, and close your door.
  • Let the speaker know that you understand, or are earnestly trying, by paraphrasing back what you think s/he has said.
  • Ask questions to clarify or deepen your understanding of what is being said.
  • Be patient. Many people want to rush in to speak because they assume that silence means agreement with what is being said. Assume instead you will have your turn to speak, or be clear about this assumption ahead of time.
  • Hold off the temptation to shift to your experience or perspective. See how long you can keep the focus on the other person.

Listening indicates value and respect for the people who work for you. It connects people, builds teams, and opens communication. Through listening, we understand issues, resolve conflicts, and solve problems. Listening is the act of a leader.

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