“It seems rather incongruous that in a society of super-sophisticated communication, we often suffer from a shortage of listeners.” – Erica Jong
Listening effectively starts first with an attitude – an attitude of genuine interest in understanding what another person is trying to communicate. However, even for very experienced listeners, it is difficult to listen well. One simple reason is that our brains work faster than our mouths! A normal rate of speaking is 150 words per minute but we think at about 10 times that speed. If we don’t focus on listening, we fill in space either by thinking about what we’re going to say or by tuning out.
Listening to Feelings
One of the most difficult challenges as a leader is to listen when there is emotion involved, either yours or that of the person you’re listening to. Consider how you would react in the following situations:
- Your neighbour says to you after you describe your day with your centre’s children: “You talk about this job as if it was a real profession. Isn’t childcare just a fancy word for babysitting?”
- A member of your board says to you: “You always have to control everything that happens here. I have some ideas too you know!”
- One of your best staff members surprises you one day when she says: “I’ve decided to look for work in another field. I just can’t make ends meet with what I’m earning here, knowing that childcare just isn’t seen as valuable and realizing I’m making the same as a parking lot attendant!”
A common response, when faced with a difficult emotion, is to try to reassure the other person, to solve the problem or to defend a position. However, in emotional situations, emotion is the most important part of the message – not the words that are being said. When you hear emotion, pay attention and respond first to the emotion. Let the air out of the balloon before you attend to the problem.
Effective listening is a key leadership skill. As a leader, you listen so that you will understand others – what they feel, what they think, what they want. Good leaders always listen first, before they worry about making themselves understood.
Checklist for Skillful Listening
- Listen attentively. Don’t interrupt a speaker. Try to not let your mind wander.
- Make sure you understand what is being said. Repeat the message back in your own words. Summarize occasionally to communicate that you understand the speaker’s ideas.
- Listen without judging or evaluating the speaker. Listen to the emotion behind the message. Don’t let your impressions of the speaker interfere with understanding their ideas. Listening is not the same as agreeing.
- Keep an open mind. Ask a question if you start to feel defensive. How did you come to that conclusion? Can you say something else about that? Be aware of words that trigger an emotional response in you.
- Listen between the lines. Watch body language and notice gestures.
- When emotion appears, acknowledge it with a simple statement: “You seem frustrated,” “You seem very angry.”
These may sound like easy things to do. When you try out something new, as with any new skill, it feels awkward at first. With practice, you will become a better listener – a more effective leader.