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Rebecca SchalmLast week, my friend was lamenting the fact she was away for her 16-year-old son’s first day of school and wouldn’t be there to pick him up. Obviously, her son doesn’t need his mom there. But driving him home lets her listen to him vent. It gives her insight into what he’s thinking, how he’s doing and whether she should be worried.

She reminded me of the importance of listening, whether you’re a parent or a leader.

I do a lot of stakeholder interviews to help leaders get feedback about their impact. I know that leaders who consistently cancel one-on-one meetings get the poorest feedback from their staff. These leaders typically see time spent with their team as a waste of their time, detracting from other more important and interesting things they could be doing.

In my experience, there’s a high correlation between the ability and willingness to listen, and how good you are as a people leader.

Listening is hard work and not something we’re naturally good at. When someone else is talking, our brains are busy working on our response. We’re not really listening, we’re just patiently waiting until it’s our turn to talk.

It doesn’t help that we’ve switched from personal communication (meetings, phone calls) to digital communication (emails, even tweets). Email is an effective vehicle for one-way communication, but there’s no listening involved. Reading between the lines, maybe, but no listening.

Leaders who believe they’re connected to their teams because they’re quick to reply to emails are fooling themselves. They may get good marks for ‘responsiveness,’ but likely receive poor marks on ‘listens to my opinion’ or ‘cares about me as a person.’

Poor listeners frequently have disengaged teams and struggle to retain staff.

To be a good leader, it’s essential to become a good listener. Not only is it simply respectful and humane to treat people as if what they have to say is important, but when you aren’t listening you’re missing an awful lot. For example:

  • Your team members are connected to people and have insights into issues in a way you don’t. Without their breadth and depth, your understanding is superficial and your advice and solutions are likely going to miss the mark.
  • As a leader, you’re a generalist surrounded by subject matter experts. Your team members have probably spent a lot more time thinking about some things than you have. There’s a pretty good chance that, collectively, they have more robust and well-considered ideas about how to solve problems than you do.
  • With trust comes truth. It’s impossible to build trust without forming a relationship, and listening is the foundation of all true relationships. Without trust, the likelihood people will give you the straight goods rapidly diminishes.

Here are some suggestions on how you can improve your listening:

  • Prioritize your one-on-one and team meetings. This is your opportunity to spend quality time with people who are striving to do their best for you. It’s a chance to tap into their best thinking and monitor their level of engagement.
  • Spend your time in meetings with staff listening. Too many leaders I know hog the air time. These should be meetings where you’re soliciting opinion and input, not downloading information or direction. If you’re talking more than 20 per cent of the time, you probably aren’t listening.
  • Ask a lot of ‘What do you think about that?’ questions. As the leader, it’s always tempting to provide the answers. Resist this. A good listener looks for ways to encourage others to share what they think and believe. Coaching is nothing more than asking the right questions.
  • Practise listening by putting yourself in situations where all you can do is listen. Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton brilliantly suggests listening to nature can help us become better listeners. When we’re in conversation with other humans, our brains are thinking about our response. When we’re listening to nature, we can focus on just listening. I tried this and it’s a lot harder than it seems!

Listening well is difficult, but it’s one of the super powers shared by good leaders. If you want to be a better leader, try being a better listener.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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