We all know how important it is to listen. There are many books, blogs, and articles about listening. You can go to seminars that teach you how to listen. The issue of listening is addressed in every dimension of life: marriage, parenting, work, church life, community development, and so on. Somehow, while we all deeply yearn to be listened to, most of us need to get better at doing it. That’s why we have all the books, seminars, and other resources. There’s something that most of these tools do not address, though. They do not address the prerequisites to listening.
Before I talk about three prerequisites to listening, I want to clarify what kind of listening I have in mind. I’m talking about the kind of listening that makes others feel cared for and valued. This is listening that helps people open up with their real thoughts and concerns. This is the listening that helps followers feel an emotional connection and then openly share what is on their heart and mind.
Real listening facilitates the trust, openness, and communication that leaders and followers must have to work together in meaningful and significant ways. Real listening also facilitates coaching and development conversations. These are the conversations we need to have with one another to encourage leadership growth throughout the organization.
Keep in mind that listening should not be an event or limited to a conversation. It is a long-term process. The process does not start with “Tom, I’ve got something on my mind. Do you have a few minutes?” No. It starts much earlier than the face-to-face or telephone interaction.
Listening begins with the attitude and environment that you, the leader, establish long before a conversation or situation occurs. These three prerequisites will go a long way to helping you be an effective listener.
This seems like a “no-brainer,” but you might be surprised how many followers say, “My boss is a nice guy once I get time with him, but he is really hard to find or get in touch with.” Yes, as a leader you are a very busy person. You have many responsibilities and projects to attend to. Stop and think about that for a moment. What can be more important in your organization than the people who work for you? Are you a leader of people or a leader of projects? If your answer is the latter, then perhaps you should consider applying for the next opening as a project manager and take a pay cut. If your calendar suggests the answer is the latter, you might consider some serious changes in your time use. (See The Most Important Stakeholders.)
To be more available you need to have fewer meetings and spend more time with your office door open. You need to allocate more time to walking around and seeing your team in their workspace. When someone has a question, give them some time right then. Yes, some topics are complex and require a delay: “Sandy, that’s a good topic to explore, but I want to go deeper than we can right now. Let’s connect tomorrow at 10am. I have a 30 minute slot for you then. OK?”
Closely related to availability is accessibility. Can you be reached not only in your office but also by email, phone, text, and the office chat tool? This is a sensitive topic and I am not advocating 24×7, anything-goes-communication. Each communication tool should be used for the right purpose (e.g. text messages are for brief emergency communication, not conversation). And it is definitely appropriate to set boundaries that respect family and personal time. But do you actually allow your followers to contact you, appropriately, in all the possible ways? Are you truly accessible?
Why is authenticity important to real listening? To answer that, let’s turn the question around. Would you seek guidance from a person who talks and looks like one thing, but acts another way? Would you ask for help solving a problem from someone who is one person today but might be someone else tomorrow? No you wouldn’t. Why? Because you know those people are not authentic and sharing our challenges with inauthentic people is a fruitless endeavor.
Authenticity is important for creating an atmosphere for listening because authenticity establishes trust, reliability, and consistency. When people have challenges they naturally seek stability. Authenticity establishes stability in relationships. Real listening can happen in stable relationships.
Transparency is being vulnerable. It is being willing to not know the answers (and most followers will say they don’t expect their leaders to know all the answers). It is being able to say, “I was wrong about that.” Transparency and authenticity are closely related because transparency allows followers to see what is really on the inside of the leader. Transparency is also willingness to share dreams, hopes, and vision.
Followers know when leaders are holding back. Sometimes leaders do need to hold back; they can’t share everything. In those cases transparency can be reestablished by saying, “There’s more to this situation than I can address at this time, but let’s focus on how we can help you deal with the elements that affect you.”
Leaders who are transparent encourage followers to be transparent, which is vital to real listening.
Be available. Be authentic. Be transparent.
When you make these a habit, followers will know you can really, deeply listen.
Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.