I once overheard a brief conversation between a meeting planner and attendee. When he asked how she was doing, she responded, “Terrible.” Without missing a beat, he responded, “That’s nice,” and obliviously walked away to complete his task. I watched hurt and confusion dance across her face as she quickly took her seat.
Having developed a friendship and immense respect for this man through the years of working with him, I know he would never intentionally blow past someone in need of a listening ear or kind word. What went wrong? He was intent on a task, and he had acute hearing loss.
What about you? Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone who couldn’t hear what you were trying to say? Have you ever been accused of not listening? Have you been told that you’re not listening more often than you care to admit?
In addition to the frustration and pain of not being heard, a lack of listening can lead to stalled conversations, ideas getting lost in the shuffle and dwindling confidence in you as a leader. If it happens repeatedly, or on too big of an issue, relationships can suffer grave damage that can only be repaired with an honest conversation, a sincere apology and close listening in future interactions.
In the real world, people get preoccupied and things get missed or misunderstood. If you get it right most of the time, people will cut you some slack when you inevitably mess up. However, you always want to be on the lookout for patterns. Even if listening isn’t an ongoing problem, you will increase your leadership effectiveness by focusing on three key areas.
- Ensure you have created strong, respectful relationships where truth is spoken and issues are quickly and civilly addressed. When frustrating things happen in strong relationships, they are looked at as circumstantial and caused by something external like being extra busy. When relationships go sour, the behavior gets assigned to the character of the individual. “They don’t care about me” or “they are always stealing my ideas” are common conclusions.
- Utilize active listening skills. If you’re listening with your ears but not your body, the person will not feel like they are being heard or that what they have to say is important. Show that you are intently listening by leaning forward and giving your undivided attention.
Then, take what they have said and put it into your own words so they know you heard them accurately. For example, if they offer a solution to a problem, you could respond with something like, “You believe we can increase sales by doing…” As long as you don’t sound like a parrot, this will ensure they feel heard and that you heard them accurately. If you haven’t, they will try again.
- Watch the nonverbals. Even if you are the world’s best leader, the power imbalance of employer/employee relationships can make it terrifying for someone to risk the wrath of their boss. Hence the importance of suggestion one. If their face goes blank, they have probably given up on you hearing them. If they look frustrated, in all likelihood, they are. When you see nonverbals that indicate a problem, respond with something like, “I think I missed what you are trying to say, will you please tell me again.”
Master these three critical skills and I guarantee that your influence and impact will significantly increase both in and out of the workplace. Who wouldn’t want to work hard for such a wonderful leader?