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Leadership and Listening


February 2011

Most of us overestimate our ability to listen. We give advice with the best of intentions but fail to hear the real issue. This episode identifies two behaviors that will up your listening skills.

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February 2011

Leadership and Listening

Tom Henschel

Unconscious hijacking

Donald had the CEO courting him for almost a year before he came on board as head of global operations. Fourteen months later, most of his initiatives had stalled and the executive team that had expected so much from him had mostly turned against him.

One comment from a group leader in Hong Kong epitomized Donald’s feedback: “When Donald was here on his ‘world-wide listening tour,’ we were the only ones doing any listening.”

As with many executives, Donald’s brain was a fast-firing, dynamic, supercomputer linked to an almost-compulsive desire to earn his salary through hard work. There was no question that he was smart and dedicated. But he was alienating the very people he needed because of his inability to quiet himself and receive others’ ideas.

Not surprisingly, his inability to receive came into the room during our coaching. Once, when he asked me a question, I began my response by saying I had two thoughts about the topic. As I began explaining my first thought, I could see his own thoughts flashing across his face. I was barely halfway through my first idea when he made a comment and then commented on his comment. And he was off and running.

Several minutes later, after we’d explored his thinking about my idea, I stopped and asked if he remembered that I’d said I’d had two thoughts about his original question. “Sure,” he said.

“Do you know what number two was?”

“No,” he said, “you haven’t told me.”

The good news was that he actually knew I hadn’t told him. The bad news was that he didn’t know why I hadn’t told him; he didn’t know he’d hijacked the conversation.

Allow others to fill the silence

Did Donald need to become a better listener? Absolutely. But who doesn’t? We all give lip service to the fact that we could improve our listening skills. But in our hearts, we think about ourselves as listeners the way we think about ourselves as drivers—we all think we’re better than we really are and that it’s the other guy who needs improvement.

I wanted Donald to see that if he could behave differently, he’d get different results.

I decided to focus on helping Donald develop just two behaviors.

The first behavior I worked on with Donald was this: create silence and allow the other person to fill it in.

Here’s how, on the simplest level, this might work in real life. You’re at lunch with a friend who’s telling you about the executive she reports to. She gets to the end of her anecdote just as you take a bite of food. You nod and make some noise of understanding while you’re chewing but you can’t speak.

What happens next? She keeps talking.

If you had been able to fill in the silence yourself, she wouldn’t have kept talking. In the conversational volley, she was tossing the ball to you. But your silence allowed her to keep the conversational ball, so she came up with the next thing to say herself.

Cultural aversion to silence

Our culture has an almost desperate need to fill in silences. Negotiators and interrogators use this to their advantage: say nothing and the other person will do all the work for you. Allowing silence is hard.

As we practiced together, Donald had trouble simply stopping talking. Then, once he began to get a handle on that, I would intentionally not speak until, not surprisingly, he’d fill in the silence. This whole silence thing was really hard work for him!

Then one day, he told me a story about having dinner with his oldest teenage daughter. She’d been telling him some story about a girl in her class. Then there was a pause. He laughingly admitted that he hadn’t been thinking about his coaching homework at all. In fact, he said, he didn’t really notice her pause because he was distracted: his phone wasn’t in his pocket and he was trying to figure out where it was.

Then, in the silence, his daughter said, “Dad, I’m worried about Jaime,” referring to the family’s youngest daughter.

“That got my attention,” he said. “And you can bet I tried hard to listen.”

“How’d you do?” I asked.

“I think I blew it because at one point she gave me one of those, ‘Okay, Dad,’ eye rolls and stopped talking. But I don’t know why she clammed up.”

“Did you suggest a solution to her?”

He brightened up. “Yes, I did! That’s right! I told her I thought she ought to talk with Jaime and I told her what I thought she should say to her. I’d forgotten that.” He was clearly proud of the advice he’d given.

“That’s where you blew it,” I told him.

Resist suggesting solutions too soon

The second behavior I had wanted to work on with Donald was this: resist suggesting solutions and keep exploring the problem.

Most of us believe we earn our pay by solving problems. That’s why we were hired, right? That’s what our bosses and peers and direct reports want from us, isn’t it? That’s what our families want from us, too, isn’t it? Well, yes. Sometimes.

It didn’t surprise me that, as soon as he stopped listening to his daughter talk about the problem and began telling her what she should do about it, she clammed up.

I felt pretty certain that, at work, Donald had used up any good will he’d accrued because he was always suggesting, always solving, always telling. This is where Donald’s fast-firing, dynamic, supercomputer of a brain was not doing him any favors.

If, halfway through a direct report’s explanation of a problem, Donald leaps in with a solution, the direct report is going to feel unsettled and incomplete even if Donald’s solution is spot on. Faced with this sort of rapid-fire, intrusive problem-solving, many people stop thinking for themselves at all and just bring all their problems to the problem-solver. Other people stop sharing their problems because they want to be able to flex their own problem-solving skills. In either case, reflexive problem-solvers like Donald lose good will and the power that comes from collaboration.

A couple months ago, I got an email from Donald telling of a success he’d had with one of his leaders in Europe. During their telepresence conferences, Donald had created silence and resisted problem-solving. As a result, the leader and her team developed a solution that indicated a level of commitment they’d never shown before. Donald’s new behaviors had gotten him different results.

The recap of the situation is:

  1. Most of us think we’re better listeners than we really are.
  2. Most of us are uncomfortable with silence.
  3. Most of us believe we earn respect and add value by solving people’s problems.
  4. When we jump into silences and solve problems too soon, we lose good will and collaboration.

Two behaviors to help maintain good will and a collaborative culture are:

  1. Create silence and allow the other person to fill it;
  2. Resist suggesting solutions; spend more time exploring the problem.

To say that these two behaviors will make you a better listener is true, but it’s a tad too simple. To execute these two behaviors, you have to bring a high level of self-awareness and self-management to the table—attributes that exemplify The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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