-by Josh B.
Mission Accomplishment spawns from Situational Understanding. Much of situational understanding comes from input, feedback, advice, and intelligence received from others; seen in this way, it is easy to understand that Situational Understanding begins with listening.
Listening is one of the most important and most common activities that leaders do. For a number of reasons, to include 1) information overload, 2) the general egocentric nature of humans, and 3) the acute egocentric nature of some leaders; 99 percent of leaders don’t listen well.
Instead of thinking (or hoping) that you’re a good listener, you would be well served to assume that you don’t listen well.
A little logic for you. Think about it this way:
1. If you assume that you do not listen well, but you do, you will just end up being a better listener; there is no downside here.
2. However, if you assume that you are a good listener, but you are not, then you will be that boss that doesn’t listen, the brick wall that people will eventually stop talking to (definite downside here). Have you ever worked for this person? It’s like talking to a telephone pole.
Given the above two points, why wouldn’t all leaders work to become better listeners?
Tools for Better Listening
OK, so if you’re on board with the idea that being a better listener means being able to better understand the situation (and thus be a better leader), then consider the below tools for better listening.
If you’re not on board: see, I told you so – many leaders don’t listen well. Life and leading are going to be harder for you than they have to be.
1. Be Aware of Assumptions and Preconceived Notions. Many times, in dealing with leadership issues, I intuitively believe that I understand the situation (or its underlying reasons), only to discover later that my read of the situation was entirely wrong. This occurs because I subconsciously (and incorrectly) apply a script or scheme from a past similar experience to the event at hand. This especially has the potential to occur when I am anxious or excited about a particular issue, and does real damage to the effectiveness of my listening skills.
Our best defense against assumptions and preconceived notions is twofold: awareness and verification. First, we force ourselves (especially during times of anxiety or excitement) to acknowledge our propensity to think we know what’s going on, and jump to conclusions. Second, prior to forming or acting upon conclusions, we validate and verify our assumptions and preconceived notions by asking lots of questions. Asking verifying and validating questions will either confirm or deny your assumptions and preconceived notions, and will transform them into credible facts.
2. Hire a Translator. I occasionally talk with technicians in various fields (to include medicine, law, mechanics, information technology and electricity to name a few), who are speaking English, but I have no clue what they’re saying.
This is one of the many challenges of generalist (leader) and specialist (technician) interaction: as a leader, I am ‘an inch deep and a mile’ wide with regard with regard to my subject matter expertise. I know a little about a lot, usually just enough to manage and lead it.
So when a technical expert comes stepping to me with his techno-babble, I say ‘como what?’ and get a translator. Translators are usually 1) junior managers or leaders, who have more depth and understanding on that technical area than you do, or 2) a technician in that area who has the social skills and vocabulary to translate techno-babble to layperson and back. Avoid trying to speak techno-babble, as you will likely end up looking stupid (think Nick Burns, your company’s computer guy from SNL, making computer users wear helmets).
3. Go to the Horse’s Mouth. There are other times when you don’t want an intermediary. You want to personally hear the information, from the source, for yourself. Perhaps the exact words used are important. I find this technique to be especially important when details are critical, during negotiation, or when I suspect that the source may be disingenuous. Additionally, in these cases, it may be helpful to watch the other tells: voice inflection, body posture, eye contact, et cetera; and the only way that you can reliably do this is to see for yourself.
4. Rephrase. Intimidated, unconfident, don’t really know what they want, just want to bitch or tattle, fishing, et cetera – for a number of reasons, people frequently muddle incoherently and beat around the bush when talking with leaders. Your time is important, and if you’re like me, you don’t have any extra time to commit to trying to figure out what people are saying (and what they really mean). To cease the linguistic dancing and expedite to decision and action, consider the various forms of rephrasing:
Ask them to rephrase what they’re saying, in a more clear, concise manner: ‘Tell me what you’re saying in one sentence’.
Or, you can rephrase for them: ‘This is what I think you are saying to me…’
Sometimes, it’s the verbal, interpersonal communication that causes people to stumble. For these, try: ‘Write your point down on a yellow sticky’, or ‘Send me an email summarizing your issue in three sentences’.
5. Stop looking at the computer, hand held, et cetera. I am addicted to the Internet. The power and speed at which information appears on my computer screen is awesome, and hypnotic. If there is a computer screen in my field of view, and a human being competing for my attention, the computer screen has a very good chance of winning most or some of my attention.
Therefore, because I have this flaw and I know I have this flaw, I take steps to mitigate it. I have moved my computer off of my main desk, over to a side credenza. When it’s time to talk with people, and I’m sitting at my desk, that beautiful glowing computer screen full of ones and zeros is not within my field of view. Now I can give you my full attention.
The corollary here: if you’re trying to talk to your boss, and he or she is looking at the computer screen, it is very possible that they aren’t fully listening to you. In this case, proceed as you see fit: if you really need their attention, ask for it. Or, if they’re a douche and are sitting there giving you some form of mindless affirmative response (‘sure’, ‘okay’, ‘uh-huh’, or something similar), go for it: a day off next Monday, flex-schedule hours, Hawaiian shirt Friday, et cetera. Make them pay for not listening.
6. Stop interrupting or finishing others’ sentences. Finally, don’t be that boss that finishes other peoples’ sentences. Why not? First, it is extremely rude and disrespectful. Second, you are sure to not get the message that was intended for you, because 1) you interrupted its transmission, and 2) prior to your interruption of the message, you had to stop listening and start thinking about what it was that you were going to say when you did interrupt. Third, people absolutely deplore being interrupted and misunderstood.
People think that communication involves two modes: receive and transmit. I submit that good communication actually consists of three modes: receive, THINK, and transmit (and it is the modes of receive and think that make up the act of listening). There is a whole separate mental process associated with listening, that doesn’t have the ability to occur if you do too much talking.
People who are stuck in transmit mode lack the ability to properly receive. When others are transmitting, be polite, shut up, and pay attention to what they are saying. Then, once they are done transmitting, think about what they said before responding or acting. This is listening.
About the Author: Josh B. is interested in leadership and leader development, and has developed the 'Who Leaders Are and What Leaders Do' leadership model in order to facilitate the exploration, discussion, and learning of these issues. You can read more and join in the discussion at http://wlaawld.blogspot.com
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