The Listening Leader

Why is listening so powerful, and how can we use listening to be more effective leaders? (Listen to the full interview here.)

As my guest Mark Goulston hints in the subtitle of his book “Just Listen – Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone“, effective listening helps you get through to anybody.

In one of the first stories in his book, Mark relates the story of a suicidal man sitting in a mall parking lot pointing a shotgun at his own head.  The negotiator is having no luck connecting with him, until he says “I’ll bet you feel that nobody knows what it’s like to have tried everything else and be stuck with this as your only way out, isn’t that true?”

That was the first thing anybody said that actually got through to this suicidal man.  It worked because it reflected his inner state — he felt listened to.
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When you can make someone feel listened to, you earn for yourself the right to engage in dialog with them.  You create for yourself a seat at the table for a conversation.  You’ve started to get through to them.

If this sounds like it reflects the excellent Steven Covey advice, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” you would be right — because Covey understood intuitively what my guest understands in clinical detail:  many folks cannot hear you until they first feel heard.  They will not listen first, often because they cannot.

As Mark puts it, you want to “get into the listening” of the other person — to understand what the other person is hearing from the world.

Mark has several tips for making meetings more effective, which involve listening and things related to it.  One is to start on time.  There’s a method called the Tavistock Method, that when the meeting starts you lock the door, and you don’t ding the folks how miss out, however it’s on them to find out what happened.

Another technique is to say “I think this meeting is worth our undivided attention, so let’s take five minutes and write down the things you need to get done the rest of today.  Then fold it up, set it aside, and we can focus here.”  Mark feels this works because it shows that you as the leader understand that they have a lot going on, and that the meeting is an interruption of those other things.

I would add that this also allows people to “unload” data from their heads and onto paper, allowing them to stop worrying about remembering all their to-dos.

Mark reports that this has been so effective for some of the folks who have tried it that they do it at every meeting.

On a related note, one of the ways you can relax deeply is to find a way to be deeply listened to.

Sales people are often trained to listen.  Do that, however don’t just use it as a technique.  Take the time to really listen and care about what you hear.  While mirroring and matching and listening can certainly work as techniques, it works a lot better to actually mean it.

Mark dedicated this book to his mentor Warren Bennis, the author of many classic books including “On Becoming a Leader.”  Warren is a deep listener, and he makes the folks around him feel interesting.

There’s an old saying that ‘if you bore me, I will forgive you; if I bore you, I will never forgive you.’  Because if I bore you, you’ve sent me the message that I’m not interesting.  And people hate that message.

Tip #1 – Bite your Tongue
One thing you can do immediately is, notice whether the things you want to say are really for the other person’s benefit, or your own.  If you are listening to a client, and (as Mark puts it) something brilliant comes into your mind that you want to interrupt them to say, just to sound brilliant, notice yourself and stop.  Only say things that serve the conversation, not yourself.

Tip #2 – Ask for Three Things
Another great place to start is, tell someone important to you, “I want to be better in my part of our relationship moving forward.  What are three things that I could start to do, or do more, that would help our relationship?  And what are three things I could stop doing, or do less, that would also help our relationship?” And then listen to their answer.

What about me?
Sometimes folks resist this idea of listening because they start to worry “when are we going to get around to my stuff? I don’t want to spend all my time on the other person’s agenda, or forget my points.”  I think in reality, if you set your agenda aside for a while and listen, you won’t forget what you care about.  Your agenda won’t vanish.

In the rare case when the other person seems to be complaining endlessly, you may wish to redirect them by telling them that what they are saying is too important, and needs your undivided attention, and set an appointment to specifically listen to them.

As Warren Bennis put it, “Boredom occurs when I fail to make the other person interesting.”

Mark has been attending several tributes to Warren, and they are filled with very heartfelt stories and expressions of gratitude and respect.  Warren is so humble, he responded by saying “the great thing about this sort of praise is, it gives you something to live up to.”

Mark and Warren seem to get into listening contests — each tries to listen to the other.  (Listen to the audio for the humorous anecdote – I won’t spoil it by trying to paraphrase it here.)

Be Excellent and Multiply
Mark recommends you try to identify your core of excellence, as identified by the people who benefit from it. This identifies the area where you have the greatest competence and confidence.  This tells you where you least need to BS people.  By coming from that place, you are filled with confidence and that makes you a better listener.  For Mark, it’s the ability to “listen to the unsaid” and bring out the unspoke truth in a non-threatening way that allows people and firms to finally begin to address it.

Next, what is the best application of that core of excellence?  Align that excellence with a noble cause.

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