Sunday 18 November 2007

Leaders listen

One of the biggest challenges of leading people lies in the art of listening. Yes, it is an art. Just think about how many ways there are to listen. How often have you been on the telephone while reading your e-mail in the background? Are you really listening? How often are you just dying to have the last say when someone else is speaking? Empathic listening needs to be mastered and appreciated. When you really and truly listen to someone else it implies that you are ultimately being very generous. To genuinely listen to someone you need to give him or her your time. This is what you are offering someone when you say you will listen. Giving time to anyone or anything is not an easy task. No one ever has enough time.

We all like to think we are good listeners but we are not. Why is this? Have you ever stopped to think about the script we are living? We spend 12 years in school learning how to read and write. We learn how to present information and how to perform orals. Yet we never get taught how to listen. Listening is a skill that one needs to learn. It does not come naturally - especially in this day and age where technology keeps interrupting our lives. Just think about the last time you were in a meeting explaining something critical only to be interrupted by someone’s cellphone. Can you imagine telling someone the most important thing in the world and as you get to the conclusion they say "Excuse me, I have to take this call." Were they really listening? Were they really interested?

You learn nothing from speaking. Sure, people will argue that the best way to learn is to teach. Think about it – what do you learn by listening to your own voice? If you want to grow and gain new perspectives you need to listen to others. If you want to lead people, be it in a business or in a family or in a community, then you will need to listen to those around you. Their ideas are valuable. Their input is important. We all speak too much. Myself included. God created us with 2 ears and 1 mouth, and there is a reason for this ratio.

Parents need to listen to their children, to understand them, to guide them, and to encourage them. Parents have more perspective and more wisdom than their children, and their job is to use their knowledge to teach their children, who will one day most likely be parents too, a better way. This is accomplished much more effectively when one understands the challenges that children face. In the same way, new people who join a business are looking for guidance, knowledge, growth and happiness. A leader’s job is to teach and guide them and ultimately, to create future leaders. Listening is fundamental in this continuing process.

What do leaders have that make them stand out? How did they get to have these attributes? A leader generally has more perspective and wisdom than other people in an organisation. The only hierarchy that really exists in the world is one that is characterised by knowledge. People at the top simply have more perspective and insight about where the company is going, and about why the company does what it does. If you want to grow in an organisation you need to learn as much as you can about why the company exists, how it exists, and where it is going. And the best way to learn is to listen. Listen and learn. And lead. Effective leaders are generally better listeners than most.

I have heard of many people saying how they want to grow in their respective organisations and how they want to become managers eventually. Everyone wants to manage people. I have learnt, though, that you should never want to manage people. You manage things. And you lead people. You manage a sale, inventory, money, but you lead people. You listen, and you teach and empower them. You show them the way. Just like parents who show their children what’s right and wrong, and how to be better than they were.

Empowerment means showing people the way. It means teaching them how and allowing them to ask questions. Simply telling people what to do without any chance to explore why is very dis-empowering. By not listening you dis-empower someone completely. Trust is the fundamental building block in any relationship. Trust is built by empowering one another. By respecting one another. By appreciating difference. By exploiting diversity to everyone’s benefit. By listening.

Here is some text I found floating around the Internet. Its wisdom guides me daily.

You are not listening to me when: You say you understand me before you know me well enough; You have an answer for my problem before I've finished telling you what my problem is; You cut me off before I've finished speaking; You finish my sentence for me; You feel critical of my vocabulary, grammar or accent; You are dying to tell me something; You tell me about your experience making mine seem unimportant; You are communicating to someone else in the room; You refuse my thanks by saying you haven't really done anything.

You are listening to me when: You come quietly into my private world and let me be; You really try to understand me even if I'm not making much sense; You grasp my point even when it's against your own sincere convictions; You allow me the dignity of making my own decisions even though you think they might be wrong; You do not take my problem from me, but allow me to deal with it in my own way; You hold back your desire to give me good advice; You give me enough room to discover for myself what is going on; You accept my gift of gratitude by telling me how good it makes you feel to know you have been helpful.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker