Most of us suffer sever attention deficit when it comes to listening. We tend to be better at hearing than listening, but even our hearing tends not to be very good. Many of us only half listen, and then we let our brain fill in the gaps and create conclusions.
Many of you have see the examples about reading. They demonstrate that we only half read, and our brain uses its own version of auto correct to make sense of the information. It is waht alwows us to to raed sendences tht are messpilld.
It’s a Crap Shoot
We do the same thing with our hearing. Our brain tries to speed-hear and predicts what we think is being said and plans our response, before the speaker ever finishes speaking. It’s like the quiz game where the contestant buzzes in before the question is finished. They might guess the question right and give the correct answer. Or they might guess the question wrong and their answer is nowhere close to correct. It becomes a giant crap shoot. That’s how most of us listen.
The way to stop the crap shoot is through active listening. We’ll all heard about active listening. Listening and communication are frequently at the top of the list for soft skills companies desire in their employees. But leaders have a second challenge. How they respond speaks volumes about the type of leader they are. Are they a leader who rules with an iron fist? Or one who strengthens the herd? Most of us fall somewhere in between. The trick is knowing which you need to be when, and why. That is determined through active listening.
Active Listening – Quick Review
- Engage in eye contact with the speaker.
- Keep your body language open and receptive. No fidgeting.
- Watch their body language for added perspective to their words.
- Do not interrupt.
- Paraphrase what you heard and ask questions to clarify your understanding.
- Encourage them to tell you more.
- Continue this process until the speaker has shared everything they want to say.
Leaders can feel like they’re in a bit of juxtaposition when it comes to listening. On one hand, the role of the leader is to fix things, to provide solutions, and keep everything on track and moving forward. On the other hand, leaders need to be developing the people around them. That means not providing the fix themselves but helping others to learn how to find and implement solutions.
Both require the utilization of active listening skills, but the response to listening can be at opposite ends of the spectrum depending upon the situation. Leaders need to be listening not to solve, but first to determine who should solve.
“So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.” Jiddu Krishnamurti
Example 1 – Solve It for Them
After you have listened, really listened, watched the body language, paraphrased, and asked clarifying questions, it is time to begin formulating your response. Consider the following: Is this a life / business threatening issue that needs immediate attention? Is this an issue that is at the speakers “pay grade”? Is this an issue that should even be being brought to your attention? Who is the best person to handle this issue?
Consider a scenario where someone comes to you to talk about an accounting error that is going to negatively affect everyone’s paycheck. Not only does this rank pretty high on the importance list, but it is also an urgent issue. The speaker has identified two potential solutions but needs you to determine which one to take. As the leader, you are also the one who needs to communicate with everyone about the issue.
This is an example of something that will be above the speakers “pay grade” to determine which solution to take, plus they will need you to grant them access to a higher security level in the computer to make the needed corrections. Additionally, communication needs to come from the head honcho – that’s a leadership responsibility. This one is for the leader, not to handle alone, but to determine what actions to take. Here the leader must act to solve the problem.
Example 2 – Coach Them to Solve It
Now consider a scenario where someone comes to you to talk about people not cleaning up after themselves in the break room. Things are being spilled in the microwave and not wiped up. Wrappers and crumbs are being left out on the tables. The trash can looks like it was used as a basketball hoop by folks with poor aim. And the list of complaints goes on.
This is a perfect example of something that can be turned back to the employee. What suggestions do they have for solving these issues? Have they tried to do anything themselves? Are there others with the same concern that might want to work with them to come up with some solutions?
This can be considered an important issue as it relates to company culture and how people feel about their work environment. But that doesn’t mean it has to be on the top of YOUR list. It is not an urgent issue. Rather than just rattle of some quick fixes, challenge the employee, or other appropriate persons, to tackle this issue on their own. Ask to be kept informed but put the onus for action on them.
Putting It All Together
You may not think about it much, but your ability to actively listen and determine which type of response you give – fixing or coaching – has a huge impact on the tone and culture of your team. If you are always fixing, employees will think you want or need to micro-manage decisions. They won’t think for themselves because they are afraid you will not like their choice and overturn your decisions. Employees will become “yes-men” and constantly look to you for direction.
If you are always deferring the decision to others, employees will think you aren’t able or interested in making decisions yourself and lack fortitude. They will learn to go ahead and make all the decisions themselves without consulting you, and possibly without informing you.
The fixers can be seen as too hands on while the coaches can be seen as too hands off. Leaders must be able to navigate a middle ground. You must be a strong decision maker that is not afraid of making the tough calls. And you must be able to provide guidance that helps others learn which decisions they can and should make on their own and offer support for the decisions they do make.
Leaders are constantly being presented with teachable moments where their actions can set the example for the expected culture, but they must be listening for those moments. The way that leaders respond teaches others how much autonomy they have and how much they can pass on to others. Pay attention to how you are responding and what tone that sets. But remember, it all starts with listening.
Revised March 2022. Originally published under The OD Pro in January 2020.
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