Leadership Barometer 72 Listens Deeply

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. These are not good for diagnosing problems or specifying corrective action, but they can tell you where you stand quickly. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Listens Deeply

It is said that managers have the worst hearing in the world. Many employees lament that trying to talk to the boss is like trying to reason with a rock. Yet most managers would put “listening skills” as one of their stronger traits. How come there is often such a wide gap between perception and reality? I believe leaders do not recognize that listening is a very complicated and multi-step process that starts in the mind of the speaker. Here are the steps.

1. Speaker’s mind has a thought
2. Speaker translates the thought into words
3. Speaker says the words
4. Words are conveyed to the ear of the listener
5. Words are heard or not heard as sent
6. Tone of voice and body language of the speaker are factored in
7. The message that was heard is translated into thought
8. The thought is translated into the listener’s mind

If any one of those eight elements is corrupted in any way, then the message has not been received accurately. Of those eight steps, which ones cause the most trouble in communication? It is steps 5 and 6. Reason: While most people are “listening” they are actually occupying their mind preparing to speak. So what actually enters the ear is not what the listener actually believes has been said.

The interpretation of the tone of voice and body language is a huge area of miscommunication. With a slight movement of the eyebrows, mouth or a tilt of the head, the meaning of the entire message can be misinterpreted.

Why the problem happens

The culprit here is that we have a disconnect between how fast a person can talk versus how fast we can think. We can think many times faster then we can talk, so the brain has excess time to process other things while waiting for the words to arrive.

We actually multi-task, and our thoughts zoom in and out of the stream of words heading toward our ears. We believe that we have caught all of the content, but in reality we only grasp part of it because we are occupied thinking up our response or trying to interpret why the speakers pupils were dilated.

The best defense for poor listening habits is what is called “reflective listening” or sometimes called “active listening.” This is where we force our brain to slow down and focus on the incoming words in order to give the speaker visual and verbal cues that we really understood the message.

The art of reflective listening is an acquired skill, and it takes a lot of practice and effort to be good at it. If you doubt that, just try listening to someone for 5 minutes straight and concentrate on absorbing every word such that you can reflect small parts of the conversation throughout the 5 minutes. It is exhausting.

For leaders, the need for listening is even more of a challenge. We have to not only hear and interpret the words, we have to understand the full meaning. This means not only must we take in the verbal input but also properly interpret the vast amount of body language that comes along with it. Since there is more meaning in body language than in words, it makes listening an even more daunting task.

Most leaders do not take the time and energy to internalize what is being conveyed to them because they are so preoccupied with getting their message out to others. This leaves them totally vulnerable to misunderstandings that cripple the ability to build trust.

When you add the ego response which most leaders have an ample supply of, it is no wonder employees feel they are not being heard. James O’Toole had a great line for this in the book Transparency. He said, “…it is often the presence of excessive amounts of testosterone that leads to a loss of hearing.”



Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.

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