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Learning to Listen

Are you directing or developing others?

James, a CEO, listened to the difficulties his Director, Pete, was facing carefully. He tried to put himself in Pete’s shoes and think about it from his perspective. He crafted his solutions to the problem with all that Pete had said in mind and gave him what he felt was his best path forward. Pete appreciated James’s advice and that he had taken time to listen to him but essentially felt unheard. The solutions given somehow didn’t feel right to him and they didn’t fit his personal style. They fitted James’s and he could see how his boss would implement this very successfully were it up to him to do so. But ultimately, he was still in the same situation, he’d expressed his concerns and seen another perspective but was still alone with his challenges. James on the other hand left the meeting feeling satisfied. A solution had been identified, he believed he had used his emotional intelligence skills and listened to Pete. It was a good feeling.

Many of us attempt to be better at our roles as leaders. But how often are you directing choices or making decisions for people that may not feel right to them? While this is a valid part of leadership and a strong leader is willing and able to make the hard decisions, and choose the ultimate direction for a team there are also times when it is appropriate to step back from this mode of thinking. By refraining from providing solutions and giving advice, it is possible to develop others and to help them find their own way into decision making. If we give guidance each time, then we shut down the range of possibilities open to that person and give them our opinion or our preference instead of allowing them to explore their own thinking. People learn best when they are allowed to find their own way. Having support to do that is invaluable and this can come in the form of guiding questions, enabling them to expand their thinking. Great leaders are able to step away from their own opinions and by understanding that everyone thinks differently and has different needs they are able to support them in their individual development. They intrinsically know that supporting each person to become a leader in their own way adds value to a team because it brings diversity and freedom of thought. This creates an atmosphere of safety, trust and an environment for collaboration and innovation.

Are we listening or waiting to talk?

In a previous role I was responsible for designing training for healthcare professionals to learn the basics of counselling to support them in dealing with patients. It was interesting that something as simple as being asked to have a conversation where they listen to someone’s story was very difficult for them. Nearly everyone at every training reverted to advice giving. This is what we do in our society. We hear a problem and we try to fix it. In the well-known book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” they suggest that men tend to want to solve a problem, using the logical left-brain processes and women desire to be heard and understood but are often also more open to communication, tapping into the creative right brain. In a world that has until recently been very patriarchal, the logical has been more highly valued. In the corporate world in particular this has led us to prioritize these approaches to conversations. However, all of us regardless of gender, have these aspects within us; the need to be understood by others and the capacity to solve others’ problems.

In a solution focused and fast-moving world most of us instinctively move towards a solution. But this negates the other part of the equation where we want to be understood. Offering the solution bypasses listening, unless we hit on that persons exact thought process we leave them feeling that they weren’t listened to. This isn’t to say advice is not useful, it often is. But if we want to make people feel heard and we want to help them develop the capacity to think and solve problems on their own then it is not the most helpful choice we, as leaders, can make.

Why are these skills so important today?

In education now, there is a lot of talk about teaching to the test. How much do you suppose that teaching in order to pass exams and know the right answers develops the critical thinking skills that are needed in later life?

Knowledge and thinking ability are different aspects of intelligence. It is becoming evident in the younger generations coming into the workforce now that they are confident in their ability to a point and then they become fearful. It is harder for them to make mistakes because they fear criticism and failure. They are unwilling to take a chance at solving a problem themselves in case of failure or because they lack the ability in their competence to do so, because they have had less experience of this in their schooling. They come to their managers for solutions and we are doing them a disservice if we provide them. Instead we need to think about how we help them develop this capacity for thought, or what happens when a generation retires.

Strategies for developing those around you.

Listen

It seems obvious but how often in a conversation are you truly listening to someone rather than waiting your turn to speak. If your mind is engaged with what you will say next, working out solutions or thinking of insightful questions then you have stopped fully attending to the speaker. By slowing down and attending to what they say you will gain a better understanding of their perspective rather than imposing your own views on the content.

Reflect

By reflecting back the content of what has been said you are able to clarify whether or not you have understood the message in the context in which it was intended. It provides an opportunity for the speaker to correct any misunderstandings and allows you to continue the conversation in alignment.

Ask open questions 

An open question is one which prompts free speech and elaboration and does not elicit a yes or no answer. This allows you greater insight into the thoughts of the speaker and provides them with an opportunity to expand their own thinking whilst gaining your feedback.

Allow for elaboration

When you do make suggestions don’t present it as a fully rounded solution, allow room for others to add their interpretation or further develop the idea in ways that appeal to them. This creates a more creative thought process and both parties gain from sharing with the ability to create more innovative solutions.

The Wider Viewpoint

These strategies are useful for individual leaders to consider in their relationships, but they are also important guiding concepts when considering organizational culture. How do these processes become embedded in culture so that entire organizations can be encouraged towards cultures of coaching, development and innovation?

If you are interested in these strategies and want to understand how they apply to your organizational culture and change processes please feel free to reach out to Dr Kate Price for a consultation.

Follow Dr Kate Price on LinkedIn


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Kate Price is an Executive Coach and Organizational Development Consultant with a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She has 20 years’ experience working with individuals, groups and organizations enabling them to overcome difficulties and develop skills in life and leadership. Contact her at [email protected] or visit www.drkateprice.com

Originally published on LinkedIn, June 5th 2018. 

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