Of all the leadership skills available, the ability to listen well is high in the pecking order required to be an outstanding leader. Reason: Few leaders have mastered the art of listening deeply.
They think they do, but in reality their listening ability is mostly at the surface level.
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 best traits.
How come there is such a wide gap between perception and reality? I believe leaders do not understand that listening is a very complicated and multi-step process that starts in the mind of the speaker. Here are the steps involved in listening.
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. The words that were heard are translated into thought
7. The thought is translated into the listener’s mind
All the while those steps are going on, the leader’s mind is busy thinking about what he or she is trying to accomplish rather than focusing on what the other person is trying to convey.
If any one of those seven elements is corrupted in any way, then the message has not been received accurately. Of those seven steps, which one causes the most trouble in communication?
It is step 5. Reason: While most people are “listening” they are actually occupying their mind preparing to speak. So what actually enters the brain is not what the listener actually believes has been said.
The culprit here is that we have a disconnect between how fast we 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 only grasp part of it because we are occupied thinking up our response.
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 habit 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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 585-392-7763.