The other day, I was talking with my wife. She had just come home from work and was sharing a frustration of her day. Before she was able to complete two sentences, I was ready to provide a solution that only included three easy steps. As I interrupted with what I thought was going to be received as a caring gesture, she looked at me and said “I’m not looking for a solution. I know what to do. I just needed someone that I can share my frustration with.” Ouch! While I didn’t gain any Husband of the Year votes from that encounter, it did get me to thinking about how many times I assume everyone is needing a solution when they talk with me…or at least before they get two sentences out.
As a leader at work we have a lot of people that share information with us. Some sharing is just to inform us, while other sharing may have a bigger need behind it. That bigger need could be “I need feedback,” “I need to hear myself think aloud with someone so I can decide the best solution,” or even “I need you to recommend a solution.” Sometimes I have asked at the beginning of a conversation, “How do I need to listen?” if it isn’t obvious or if I’m not sure. By interrupting with my solution, I have found that I break a connection and reduce their likelihood to share with me – neither of which I want to do.
The Seven Habits Include Listening
In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey had it correct when he said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” That is so true. Even when I don’t blurt out a solution, it is likely that the voice in my head is formulating a solution even as the other person is sharing. Doing this robs me of being in the moment and hearing, I mean really hearing what is being communicated. As a leader, when we do really listen, we might be amazed at the insight of the one sharing, touched by their transparency, or even inspired by their perception or thought process. These are definitely traits I want my staff to emulate and share. In response, I find that I reciprocate by esteeming, having more respect for, and even wanting to know more of what they are thinking.
How Best to Listen
My challenge to you as a leader is to hold off on blurting out a solution so you can move on to the next problem that needs solving or the next item on your to-do list. Instead, take time to be in the moment and really listen to what is being said. Just like teachers give wait time after asking a question, give yourself wait time to hear what is being said. If you need more concrete steps, consider the following:
- Keep your mind from wandering – Learn to stay focused on what the other person is saying. Don’t let your mind wander to other tasks you have waiting or what you might rather be doing.
- Practice mirroring the speaker – Body language can go a long way in letting someone know that we are not only listening to what they are saying, but are interested in what they say. For more information, consider reading Todd A. Fonseca’s post The Power of Mirroring.
- Summarize – Summarize back to the person what you think you heard. Sometimes it is easy to miss an important part or overlook something that the speaker was trying to emphasize. And doing this also tells the speaker that you value them enough to pay great attention to their words.
- Ask open-ended questions – If you need clarification or more information, ask open-ended questions. This will encourage the speaker to elaborate and fill in those missing details while also letting them feel acknowledged and listened to.
I challenge each of you for two weeks to really focus on listening – whether at work, home, or play. Let me know how it goes. I’d love to have a conversation with you; you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or post your comment below. Either way, you’ve got my ear.