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Liberate the listener, liberate the organization

Recently grabbing lunch with a friend who took on new role 18 months ago I asked, “So what has turned out as you expected and what hasn’t?” He responded, “We are stuck in busy. The important initiatives we talked about when I stepped into this job are hijacked by day-to-day tactics. We juggle too many priorities, not enough people, and we are constantly skimming across the top of the water.” When I reflected that there might be some missing conversations about clear focus, he wholeheartedly agreed and added, “Part of the problem is no one really listens to each other here. We talk at each other and then run back to our world.  It’s frustrating.”

My friend and fellow executive coach, Richard Smith, teamed up with me in this article to tackle one of the silent killer issues that plague organizations – not enough leaders stepping fully and deeply enough into their listener.    Regardless of what is talked about, it is what is truly heard that drives true action. It is hearing with a true willingness to learn from everyone around us in the organization.Any of us are vulnerable to falling into the attachment to our own answers at the cost of gaining invaluable context and connection. As much as we may all agree with this, the work to come into the willing space of the listener requires deeper awareness and practice yet it’s one of the most powerful acts behind liberating our leadership and the talent of those around us.

From our shared history as executive coaches who have commonly experienced the need for our clients to engage far more powerfully as the listener, here are a few of our top insights on the power of the listener within you:

Double down on questions. Your best questions are far more powerful than your strongest opinion. In your next few meetings, count the number of good questions being asked. Also, watch what happens when a great question is asked. Linda Hill, author and Harvard professor shares this, “your leadership depends on how people experience themselves when they are with you.” When you ask a meaningful question, not only do you gain the value of the context you also help those around you experience themselves.

Don’t try to anticipate responses and answer before asked. Let the conversation flow and hear what is being said and then respond. The next time you are in a group meeting or a one on one discussion try to allow the conversation to flow and respond as questions are asked or issues presented. I know that is sometimes hard since being proactive is in vogue but to allow the people in the room the opportunity to speak and be heard may bring up opportunities that might otherwise be missed.

Quiet potential distractions that won’t allow you to be focused. I know that is easier said than done but in order to listen we can’t answer the phone, answer a text message or compose an email and truly be present for any conversation. Listening requires that our full attention be focused on the person and in the moment.

Consider the needs of your audience before you come to the meeting. A client who made a simple shift by giving himself just 20 minutes to plan how he wished to focus on the needs for each person for the day’s key meeting, experienced big changes in positive outcomes in meetings that had been previously challenging. By this small amount of prep time, he positioned himself as a powerful listener and facilitator. Someone described it to me as they were really experiencing his leadership.

Pay attention to the cadence of the person speaking and their body language. We all have a particular cadence that we like when speaking. Some people are fast and others are slow. Some people don’t mind cross-talk and subject changes and others do. When we are trying to listen, we have to be mindful of the person’s cadence for speaking and responding by looking at their body language. Sometimes people need a pause after speaking to process. Non-verbal cues offer powerful insights that can allow you to gain a deeper understanding of what is really being said. Be patient with the process of communication. Paying attention to body language can unblock your people and move your organization forward.

Let the speaker know you are hearing what they are saying. Give cues that you are paying attention.  (And it’s important to actually pay attention.)  Most of us can sniff out mock body language – which backfires.  The key is allowing your body to show your genuine interest. Give cues such as nodding, leaning in, and maintaining eye contact so that the other person knows that you are following what he or she is saying. These non-verbal cues on your part give the speaker a positive indication that you are following what is being said.

Be aware of how you listen and translate what is being said. Sometimes our biases come into the picture when we are listening and misunderstanding can occur. In order to reduce the opportunity for a misunderstanding, restate what you have heard to verify and clarify. Ask open-ended questions to get more descriptive answers. By translating and asking questions, it demonstrates that you are listening, and enables you to understand what is being said.

As organizations struggle against the tides of relentless change what is unchanging is our need to be heard.  Being heard is a timeless and universal need.  Richard and I would argue that the need to be heard is even greater now as organizations tangle with less predictable business cycles, greater demands for transparency, and unfolding workforce shifts which all require perhaps a significant evolution for any organization to survive. When we lean into our listener, we are truly liberating the organization by ensuring others around us experience being heard because we need their talent and ideas.  In our listener, we cultivate invaluable connection and context, the very essentials to liberate an organization into its future.

By Amy Balog, Founder, ConnextionPoint Services

Richard Smith, Managing Partner Benton + Bradford Consulting

© Benton+Bradford Consulting