The Art of Listening to Lead

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“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ― Stephen Covey

Of course, listening is a critical skill for anyone in a work setting. Employees who know how to listen to feedback and respond accordingly have a much better chance at success in their professional endeavors. But, I believe there is an art to listening. Leaders who know how to really listen to their employees can help promote innovative thinking, spur productivity, and stimulate creative action.  

Let’s start with a basic premise:  listening is not the same thing as hearing.  I’m sure you’ve witnessed and perhaps offered this response (as I have) to someone who is sharing a divergent idea: “I hear what you are saying.”  This is typically said when acknowledging a concern or addressing someone’s complaint or difference of opinion.  The phrase is not bad in and of itself, but if used as a deflection or as a polite way of redirecting or brushing off the speaker before continuing with one’s own agenda, it ignores important elements that can transform it from hearing into listening.  Active listening in a business environment can furnish significant benefits for the listener as well as the speaker.  

First, mere hearing without listening can ignore proper consideration of the individual’s perspective as possessing any real value.  In other words, respect for the speaker as a contributor to the success of the team/project/organization.  

Second, it can overlook the subtext. Subtext can be defined as the unspoken meaning, or “lines between the lines.”  Ah, and here is where we enter into the actor’s territory.  Here’s how we pull the artist’s metaphors and tools into this rich topic.  

Alan Rickman, the wonderful British actor who appeared in countless films and theatrical performances during his lengthy career had some wonderful words to share on this subject.  If you don’t know Rickman from his other films, you’ve probably seen him — and heard his deep and resonant voice — in “Love Actually” or as Professor Snape in the “Harry Potter” series.  Rickman stated that to be effective as an actor you need to learn that “what you have to say is incidental. It’s the listening that’s important.” 

As a stage or film actor, you might rehearse with your “scene partner.”  Notice that term: scene partner.  Well, what does that tell us right at the start? Productive listening and interchange is a partnership!  This is no less important to consider in our business interactions. 

In our scenario, if the actors are really clued into each other — really listening —  in an effort to achieve the most “real” performance, the way their lines are executed will differ depending upon the other person’s delivery of the preceding line, or, conversely, by their silence, or their facial expression, posture, etc.  If the actor simply waits for his lines without fully comprehending his scene partner’s words AND the emotional subtext and intention below the surface, the performance will be wooden, uninspired, and lack the truth needed to have power to affect the audience. 

To get a better understanding of what I mean by subtext, consider this short and very basic exchange:

Joe:  Good morning! How are you doing today?

Jane:  I’m fine…how are you?

Yep, sharp and creative dialogue!  I’m using this as an illustration, so stay with me.  If Joe delivers his line in a jaunty, upbeat way, Jane’s response might mirror that.  Or she might respond negatively or sarcastically to his jaunty tone.  What if Joe’s tone is angry?  Jane’s response might be afraid, or timid, or equally angry.  Their responses feed off the energy and emotions of the other person and create the texture and tone delivered in the dialogue.   

To some, active listening is an intuitive art. These individuals can sense what is going on behind someone’s words (subtext) and respond accordingly.  But not everyone has an intuitive nature (and intuition can be wrong!) so listening may need to include more actions.  It may involve asking specific questions to discern what is going on.  

I had a talented new employee tell me during our initial weeks of working together that feedback was really important to her, but that it needed to be explicit. She said, “Please be direct with me. I’m not good at reading signs.”  

I was really grateful to have that insight into her personality and workstyle and resolved that, going forward, I would provide her with any feedback very directly if and when I saw anything that I felt needed correction or realignment. 

It’s really great when your staff, peers, or coworkers TELL you how they work best.  But, that isn’t always how it works.  Many are afraid to admit that they don’t understand something, or that they are unhappy, hurt, or upset about a work-related issue. Any number of concerns could result in uncomfortable feelings which are not optimal for the employee’s well-being.  And a reduced sense of well-being in even one staff member can degrade their performance and also negatively impact a team, a department, or even an entire organization. 

In order to get to the heart of an employee’s issues or concerns, there is a need to delve deeper through more effective listening. This active listening, if done properly, includes compassion and empathy as its starting point.  So how is effective empathetic and compassionate listening achieved?  Let’s dig into this a little deeper with the art of acting as our model.  

In a play, TV show, or movie, each character may not be empathetic to the other character’s plight, nor listen and respond to them in an empathetic way.  But the ACTOR must do so. The actor must be alert to the needs of the other actor or actors in the scene with him.  He has been tasked with serving the scene (meeting/project) and the production (department or organizational mission or purpose).  

To do this, actors must feel safe and trust their director, who, like an executive in an organization, shapes the vision for the piece.  Each actor must also trust his fellow actors who, in our model, are his peers, his managers, and the executive team.  This is the only way to ensure that even the toughest emotional scene resonates with the audience and forwards the plot effectively.  And in our case, that the “performance” of each employee and his team resonates with their clients, in interactions with other workgroups, with the public, etc., thus forwarding the mission of the organization.

So how can a leader take this premise and actively listen for optimal results in a professional setting?  Here are some suggestions: 

  1. Provide an environment in which employees feel safe to speak. To do this well, you must be genuinely caring and let them know that if they share concerns with you, you will not betray their confidence. And then, don’t!  As a leader, if you allow this to happen, you will risk losing the respect and trust of that person (and likely his coworkers, who he won’t hesitate to tell of your betrayal) forever. And, as we know, trust is critical to sound leadership. 
  1. Engage fully with the other person. That means looking them in the eye, listening with intent to understand. Really give them the floor. Your body language should reflect that openness to listen as well.  If possible, don’t sit behind your executive desk with them on the other side.  Find a neutral spot where you are both on the same level physically. This makes the sharing less daunting for the employee.  It will feel more like a peer-to-peer discussion and not a manager-employee discussion which can signal that there could be negative consequences if they speak out.  
  1. Ask questions.  Delve and probe with a real intention to learn more, with questions or statements that let the individual know you have truly heard what they are saying:  “I think what I’m hearing you say is such-and-such, is that right?” “Can you expand a bit on that, so that I can really understand?” “That’s an interesting idea, can you share a little more detail about how that might work?” You get the idea.
  1. Act with genuine empathy and compassion. Let them know (even if their ideas do not align with yours or with the final outcome) that their viewpoint is important.  And, not just because you are doing them the favor of listening, but that it is truly important to you. They are part of your team (your metaphorical acting troupe) and you care about them.  Let them know that they are valued and integral to the success of your organization.  

Creating opportunities to really listen to your employees and to observe or participate in day-to-day interactions will allow you to better discern the subtext that underlies an individual or team dynamic and can prepare you to respond to issues more quickly and effectively.  As Lyndon Johnson wisely stated, “If you’re not listening, you’re not learning.”

Don’t minimize or forego this opportunity to gain valuable insights about your staff.  You will strengthen their trust in you and they will be more open to sharing ideas that can positively contribute to organizational success.  Employees who feel their contribution is valued are also happier employees! 

Not surprisingly, studies show that happier employees are not only more productive, they are more reliable, easier to retain, elevate the energy of the team, and will spread the word about what a great workplace they are a part of!  

Listening truly is an art. And, all art requires dedicated practice to master.  When it comes to listening in the workplace, this practice is sure to provide significant and tangible rewards.