Leadership Challenge: Be a Better Listener

A big leadership challenge is how to become a better listener. I hear this from my coaching clients: many of them are aware they don’t listen well. This may be because most top executives are highly goal-oriented and have a winner’s attitude. While that’s good for most things in life, it gets in the way of being a good listener.

Here’s what I mean by that: if you’re focused on what you need from the other person, and what you need them to understand. then you’re really not focused on what they need or what they’re saying. You’re not listening to them. You’re more interested in what you have to say. And that applies to both family situations and work. (Photo by Danilo Rizzuti)

In fact, when Marshall Goldsmith wrote his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, he made a list of 20 faulty habits that leaders engage in. About three-quarters of them contribute to or directly cause bad listening. Think about this: the best bosses are really good listeners. They “hear” what you have to say.

This is what I meant by “walking the leadership tightrope,” in a previous post. You can’t lead well if you’re a know-it-all, and don’t ask your people a lot of questions (and listen to the answers!)

The worst bosses don’t listen. They expound. They talk. A lot. Last week I got a Harvard Business Review tip about how to become a better listener. It’s a perfect example of a technical solution to solving the problem of listening. I’ll share it with you here, then tell you why I think the listening problem requires more than this, i.e., an adaptive solution – a change in mindset, not just a change in behavior.

The tip is titled Listen without Reacting:

Listening is harder than speaking. Even the best listeners sometimes have to bite their tongues to stop from reacting, interrupting, or trying to console the person talking. Here are three ways you can truly listen:

  • Avoid distractions. This doesn’t just mean putting down the Blackberry or closing your web browser. Try not to think about what you’re going to say next. Simply focus on what the other person says.
  • Repeat back. This sometimes feels silly, but repeating back what you heard shows the other person that you’re listening.
  • Ask thoughtful questions. Ask open-ended questions that help you see the issue more clearly and allow your conversation partner to go deeper into what he cares about.
  • While these are good tips, the real problem lies in why people don’t listen in the first place. Unless you change your mindset, you will forget these handy tips and continue to interrupt or change the topic to your own agenda as soon as the opportunity comes up. This is a good example of a technical solution applied to an adaptive problem.

    Since so many of my coaching clients want to work on becoming a better listener, I used the grid for competing commitments from the Kegan and Lahey book Immunity to Change. I’ll share it with you here, as an example of how someone could explore the problem of listening on a deeper level to get the heart of what needs to change. All comments welcome, of course! What do you think about the “listening problem?”

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    1. […] well do you listen? One of the biggest challenges leaders have is to listen well. There’s just so much on their minds it’s hard to be fully present. Yet if one […]

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