Listening

I ran into an internationally known speaker and author over the weekend at a dinner party. We had just a few minutes to talk shop and he asked me what I saw as the most common need among leaders when I work with companies.

My answer was simple (and far from unique): Listen more.

In several of my team’s recent assignments, we have been asked to gather feedback on senior leaders and this is the common theme. People around these leaders (above, below, and to the sides) often don’t feel like they’re really being listened to.

Dig beneath the surface and there’s something more profound than the usual advice we get about listening.

  • It’s not just avoiding the tendency to interrupt or finish someone’s sentences.
  • It’s not just getting rid of distractions like email, cell phones, or papers on the desk.
  • It’s not just asking questions.

All of these tactics are good and should be standard for any of us when we are in listening mode. People around us want to feel like they have our undivided attention and these tactics can help with that.

But go even deeper into the feedback and there’s an even more profound (and challenging) truth. The people we interviewed regularly talk about wanting to know that the leader in question is actually open to influence.

Here are the types of things we hear:

  • My colleague asks good questions and paraphrases what I said. But she’s already made up her mind and nothing I say will change that.
  • My boss does great at listening as long as he agrees with me. Otherwise, he’s just waiting for me to finish so that he can tell me the right answer.

These folks want to be able to say to themselves, “If I tell this person what I really think, he will actually entertain my ideas and may even change his own opinions as a result of the conversation.”

That seems to be more unusual the higher you go in an organization. What’s your experience? And if you see the same trend, what do you think is behind it?