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. 

Art and the City — an Actor’s Story

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“New York!” he said. “That’s not a place, it’s a dream.” ― Ralph Ellison

Welcome back!  Before we explore more about the intersection of art and business, I’d like to take a bit of a detour to explain why this concept speaks so loudly to me. 

If you know me, you know how much I love a good story. I particularly like those that work as a tool to understand something better, help provide clarity or enlightenment, or reinforce a principle or idea.  My story may give you a glimpse into how this blog’s concepts about work and art crept into being.  So here goes.

As a musical theatre actor living in New York City in the 90s, I pounded the pavement regularly to get acting work. Quite literally. I would stand or sit on the sidewalk outside of the audition locations, often well before sunrise, in all sorts of weather, in the hope of securing a coveted spot to audition for whatever gig or gigs I had my heart set on that week. With a cardboard cup of coffee from the nearest bodega or street vendor warming my hands, I mustered the sort of youthful determination and unbridled hope that is hard to conceive of at this point in my life.  It was typical to share this sidewalk experience with several hundred other talented hopefuls.  A community of proverbial starving artists with a cup of coffee and a dream.  

Getting out of bed in the wee hours to secure my place in line was always challenging, but there was something strangely zen about the walk from my apartment to a nearby audition venue. Crossing Times Square during the pre-dawn hours to the surreal experience of almost complete silence, absent of the cacophony of traffic and daily bustle that was soon to follow, would always take my breath away.  

Once I had secured my audition appointment time, I would hurry back to my apartment to ready myself for a day at my temp job. I would then catch the subway to get to work at my assignment in the financial district for a few hours, leave for an hour or so for the audition (I’ll need another blog to describe that part of the experience!) and return to the jobsite afterwards. Luckily, there were many actors who did the same, so I was allowed a bit of flexibility in my work schedule.  In New York, at least at that time, actors were typically a hot commodity for temporary assignments:  they were well-groomed, had great communication skills, and since they usually really needed the money, were highly committed to the jobs they got.

Several nights a week following full days of auditioning and working, I’d attend an acting class, voice coaching, or dance class before finally heading back to my miniscule apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, grabbing a cheap slice of pizza or a carton of Chinese food on my way. 

When not working on a theatre job (which was more often than I would like to admit!) I straddled two very intense worlds: the hustle of Wall Street and the hyper-competitive New York theatre scene.  Both worlds showed no mercy.  Win or die. But, if you stuck it out, I think it was impossible not to become stronger — that is, before becoming completely jaded!

I learned a lot during the ten years I was in New York. About failure, financial deprivation, fear, and rejection. But also about fortitude, personal strength, and the value of ongoing training to perfect my skills.  I also learned — without realizing it — how to hold my own in the business world while staying true to my artistic nature. Though I never got my big Broadway break, I never regretted those years in the Big Apple. Well, let me rephrase that. I may have left with some resentment, but I now look back at that time with the perspective of age and experience, and see it as a priceless time in my life. A time when my true character began to emerge.  

I ultimately moved to Austin, Texas, bringing that conglomeration of lessons learned, achievements, strengths and vulnerabilities, along with me.   

After New York’s grit, concrete, and steel, and its unrelenting pace and constant demand to win at all costs, I relished the idea of Austin’s green hills and rolling rivers and the opportunity to be a part of its iconic community of creative souls singing and playing their guitars in emotional bliss devoid of cutthroat, competitive, non-stop motion. It seemed the perfect antidote for my soul. (I would discover that much of this idyllic view was a myth, but that’s another blog).  

For the twenty years following that move to Austin, I’ve served in low-level, mid-level and leadership positions in real estate, a very short stint in education, and staffing, earning a Master’s Degree while working as an executive in a successful nonprofit organization in Austin.  Over that time, as I increasingly became a player in the business world, I found myself unable to feel comfortable leaving my artist’s spirit completely behind, or at least setting it aside during the work day. I write songs and sing in my extracurricular band in my off hours to help feed my personal need for creativity, but after spending 40 to 60 hours a week working in the traditional business world, I also had to come to terms with the fact that my need to feel something powerful and emotional, as well as my insatiable desire for a good story weren’t likely to appear at the office in the way they might in viewing a great film, listening to a classic song, observing an unforgettable piece of artwork, or even in watching a pretty good play at the local community theater.  

I’ve often felt that as a business person with leadership responsibilities, I should want to rid myself of the personal desire to deal with situations in the workplace in a way that makes everyone laugh or applaud or even share a moment of sorrow; to lose the need to create teams that work together like the cast of a stage play, sharing moments that are familiar, but which change according to a particular night’s audience or the spontaneity of an interaction with another player.  But of late, perhaps because of the intensity and struggle of the world we have been living in, I’ve decided to embrace what I’ve attempted to suppress and consider the benefits of art in business in front of an audience — you, dear reader.

So, with my own story leading the way, we will move onward with our subject: the art of work.  I would love to hear YOUR stories!  Feel free to share those in the comment section or reach out to me directly at elizabeth@artofwork.blog.