I know I do. I constantly have to stop myself hogging a conversation. It is a terrible affliction and I have to guard against verbal diarrhoea all the time!
A friend once contrasted a trade union leader or a political campaigner, with a university lecturer. While the lecturer has a captive audience, the politician will be heckled and challenged; if the audience don’t like what he or she is saying, they will argue or walk away.
At work we often have a captive audience so it is easy to drone on about what we think is important and to leave a meeting with a feeling that it has “gone well” (for you, assuming no one challenged you). Many managers and directors do “staff comms” like this – some even use videos or formats where the listeners cannot answer back! Yet, to my mind, this kind of “communication” is misnamed. There are of course times when you need to get information to people – newsletters, posters and the intranet have their place. And there are times when the actual opinion of the leader is exactly what is required.
But communication is, at heart, dialogue. That means it takes two, babe. And the listen and talk stuff should be more or less equal, even if you are the blooming expert.
Naturally in a classroom the teacher is trying to get her students to learn about electronics or the solar system, and she shows diagrams and data, or demonstrates using apparatus. But in the end unless there is a dialogue the learning will be haphazard and dependant on the motivation of the listener.
At work we are rarely trying to teach someone something. Usually dialogue and communication is where two or more people try to reach some kind of joint understanding, even when agreement is not possible. When I talk with you I want to know how you see the world, what you think, how it is for you. I don’t expect you to come to the conversation with the same set of assumptions or experiences as me, even when we have chosen a topic we both know and care about. However in a conversation we often identify things that we have in common – “hey, we both come from Lancashire, or enjoy knitting, or love Netflix and Aldi.” But difference of view, of experience, of approach, of feeling is inevitable. Exploring where we differ is the whole point of discussion and conversation.
So why should all of us listen more? Not just because we have two ears and one mouth!
The main reason why leaders need to listen is: if you don’t, your people will stop telling you things you need to know.
A book I found helpful when my kids were young was called “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk”.
Its premise is that you find out a lot more by listening and observing than you do by speaking. A lot of energy goes into speaking, especially if you’re trying to feel how what you are saying is being received. You have to interpret body language and perceive the feelings in the room at the same time you are saying stuff. And that is pretty hard. If you develop your listening and observation skills, and work on picking up feelings in a meeting or a room without talking, you will get good at it which make it easier to read the room when you are actually talking.
What are the benefits of listening?
- Listening actively is a good skill in itself. More information is gathered this way to help with decision making. Active listening involves using all your senses including your emotions.
- If you listen actively to people and let them know that you are focused on them and what they say it makes them feel valued and important. This builds trust in your leadership.
- People with different viewpoints or from different places in the organisation will see things differently, and will see things that you cannot see. Many is the time that the leader makes the wrong decision because important information is not offered, or heard.
- The “mood of the meeting” can affect the decision. It can seem that we are all agreed on something, e.g. Brexit, but without a discussion we are not clear what exactly is being proposed. Sometimes people can use the same word to describe diametrically opposite things.
- If people have a say, and are actually listened to, it is more likely they will accept the eventual decision, even if they disagree with it.
- Even when someone says something that is wrong, or even stupid, don’t immediately point it out (I struggle with this one!). Ask the others what they think. See if someone else gives a contrary view. If you respond, do so with the utmost kindness. If you jump on them they will probably never raise a point again – and you will be blindsided.
My best tip about talking is always to ask, as a leader, can someone else answer this question? Use your directors or managers, or subject experts. Practice a little modesty! Or, if you feel the questioner has a strong opinion, ask them what they think. Often they can answer their own question.
Be curious about what others think. Try to “work them out”. Often the person who speaks in a large group is effectively a spokesperson and will be saying something lots of people think or believe but maybe couldn’t express.
Subscribe to Kate's blog