Great Leadership Requires Great Listening

“Any really great leader listens.”
Gerry Spence, attorney

Communication breaks down … a lot. And communication breakdowns lead to problems as simple as misunderstandings or having to re-do a job. After all, our language can be confusing. As J. Gustav White points out, “Our language is funny — a fat chance and a slim chance are the same thing.”

But communication breakdowns also lead to problems as serious as divorce, academic failures, or business closings. As a former professor, I knew that 50% of the students who started college would never finish … not because of their lack of intelligence … but because they did not know how to listen and learn.

It’s like the four college students who went on a road trip before finals and ended up missing a final exam. They told their professor they had planned to be back in time for the final, but a flat tire kept them from making it. They asked whether they could make up the exam, and the professor, who seemed to be grinning, agreed.

He put all four in different rooms. They were relieved to see the first question, worth five points, was a fairly simple multiple-choice question drawn from the textbook. Then they turned to page two and read the next question, which was worth 95 points: “Which tire?”

The good news is many of the communication breakdowns can be prevented if people just took the time and had the skill to listen and listen well. That’s why I teach people how to quadruple their listening effectiveness in my program on “The Partnership Payoff: 7 Keys to Better Relationships And Greater Teamwork.” Check it out!

I know that one of the best ways to retain and motivate your best people is to keep on teaching them … how to be a better listener, how to lead more effectively, how to build a better attitude, or any other people skill. As newspaper columnist Penelope Trunk wrote, “If you teach someone skills to run their own company, they are more likely to stay longer at your company … The new workplace currency is training and skill building, and that’s what makes young people stay in their job.”

To get you started on the process of quadrupling your listening effectiveness, I recommend the following strategies.

1. Judge content rather than delivery.

Obviously, there are good speakers and bad speakers: those who express themselves fluently and those who can’t seem to utter a clear, concise statement. Good listeners focus primarily on what is being said and only give minor attention to the way in which it is being said. Poor listeners are easily turned off by some irrelevant aspect of the speaker’s delivery, and so they tune out. They stop listening.

That can be a BIG mistake. You may be fooled by a charismatic speaker, who speaks in a most appealing way, and who impresses you with his air of authority, but he may have nothing profound to say or she may be downright wrong. By contrast, you may have dismissed the unpolished speaker, the one with the irritating mannerisms, the one who speaks too slowly, or the one with the bizarre appearance. And he or she may be the very person who has the most important things to say.

2. Search for areas of interest.

Poor listeners tend to predict what they are about to hear. They figure they already know what a certain coworker is going to say, or they’ve already heard their spouse make the same comment a dozen times before. So why bother to listen? And poor listeners tend to prejudge certain subjects as boring, uninteresting, or irrelevant to them personally. So again, they figure there’s no need to listen.

By contrast, good listeners listen optimistically. They try to share the speaker’s enthusiasm for the subject. And skilled listeners realize that no matter how dull the subject may appear on the surface, there are probably hundreds of people who have made that subject the passion of their lives.

Moreover, as listening expert Dr. Manny Steil suggests, “Good listeners are selfish in the best sense of the word. They ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ and ‘How can I relate this message to something I’m already interested in?'” They’re always looking for something they can USE in what the speaker is saying.

You would be well advised to remember what author G.K. Chesterton said years ago, “There is no such thing as an uninteresting subject; there are only uninterested people.”

So whenever you’re in a listening situation, to be a better listener, search for areas of interest.

It’s like the three psychiatrists who shared an interest in helping people with their problems. But one day they decided it wasn’t fair that other people always brought them problems, while psychiatrists had no one to go to.

“We’re all professionals. Why don’t we take this opportunity to tell each other our problems right now?” said the first psychiatrist. “For example, I’m a compulsive shopper and deep in debt, so I always overbill my patients.”

The second psychiatrist said, “I have a terrible drug problem and regularly pressure my patients into buying illegal drugs for me.”

The third psychiatrist said, “I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t keep a secret.”

3. Use the fast pace of thought to your advantage.

You can think 3 to 5 times faster than people can talk. So you can literally think circles around the speaker … which can be good or bad.

Good listeners use this extra time to reflect on what the speaker is saying, to apply what the speaker is saying, and even summarize all the key points the speaker has made. In other words good listeners practice patience, stay tuned in, and keep focusing on the message they are hearing.

Poor listeners use this extra time to let their minds wander. They listen to some of what is being said, think about something else for a while, listen a bit more to what is being said, and go off on another mental tangent … sometimes forgetting to check back in. It’s like the people Lord William Norman Birkett talked about. He said, “I do not object to people looking at their watches when I am speaking. But I strongly object when they start shaking them to make certain they are still going.”

4. Take notes if possible and appropriate.

If someone comes to your office to share some vital information, there’s nothing wrong with asking, “Do you mind if I take a few notes? I want to make sure I get everything.” It can be a sign of respect … that you’re taking the other person and his/her contributions seriously … and it will improve your listening comprehension.

When you take notes, you stop your mind from wandering. You also reinforce what you’re hearing, which increases the chances you will remember what you heard. So take notes at meetings, at conferences, at seminars, at speeches, at church, wherever you go and information is being shared.

BUT, adjust your note-taking to the speaker’s style. With some speakers, you’ll focus on his main ideas and write those down. Sometimes you’ll be able to summarize long passages and lengthy examples with a single sentence. Other times, when a subordinate presents a detailed report, a colleague provides specifications for the job to be done, or a superior presents the finely tuned financial projections, you’ll need to take more extensive notes.

Communication is the lifeblood of any personal or professional relationship. But poor listening is often the killer of those relationships. Start pumping some extra life into your relationships by applying some of these strategies.

Action:  Remember, whenever you’re listening to someone else, look for something you can USE in what he/she is saying.