In the New York Times Best Seller The Art of Racing in the Rain (2008), author Garth Stein tells a fictional story of the life of a race car driver, Denny, as seen through the eyes of his dog, Enzo. At one particular point in the story, when Denny is experiencing great difficulty, Enzo shares this thought: “I listen. I cannot speak, so I listen very well. I never interrupt. I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own. People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another’s conversations constantly. It’s like having a passenger in your car who suddenly grabs the steering wheel and turns you down a side street.” (p. 101). Remarkable insight from a dog, but so often it is true.
I would guess that most people understand communication is two-way street, involving both talking and listening, but I would also guess that most people do far more talking than listening. Unlike Enzo, we don’t do such a good job of listening, and at those times when we do appear to be listening, we are probably guiltier of thinking about what we are going to say next than thinking about what the other person is saying. The unfortunate result is that we do not communicate well, our relationships suffer, and we are not as effective as leaders.
One of the skills, then, that is necessary for effective leadership (and for healthy relationships) is the ability to listen well. In short, we need to be good listeners. In an article published on LinkedIn on February 2, 2015, called “Best Advice: Listen More than You Talk,” Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, echoed this truth when he wrote that one of the “best and most simple pieces of advice” he ever received came from his father: “listen more than you talk.”
Learning to listen well, though, requires effort, because it involves much more than simply hearing the words that the other person is saying. It involves understanding the idea and intent, the meaning, of what the other person is communicating. Usually, however, the problem we have is that our own tendency toward selfishness and our own perceptions and experiences interfere with our ability to hear what the other person is communicating, therefore we have to become intentional about learning to listen, and this means much more than just listening with our ears.
I realize this may sound a little odd, but one way in which listening happens is with your eyes. In reality, people do a lot of communicating with facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language, and so the implication is that much of what you hear people say comes from what you see. For that reason, you need to become very intentional about looking around and observing as part of your listening process. When you are face-to-face with someone, engaged in dialogue, you must consciously become aware of what they are saying with nonverbal cues, thereby more clearly hearing what they are trying to communicate; however, I would suggest you also need to do the same when you are observing from a distance, when you are not directly interacting, but instead are watching or noticing the behavior and actions of those around you. Your understanding will improve if you take time to look around and listen to what you see.
The caution here, though, is that if you are not careful, it is quite easy to only see what you are looking for, and to not see what you are not looking for. On the one hand, if we don’t acknowledge and avoid a preconceived perception about what think we will see when we look, then we will tend to only see those things that reinforce that perception, therefore confirming our belief that it is true, even if it is not. On the other hand, we also tend to miss a lot of what is right in front of us, primarily because we are not looking for it, and therefore will not see important clues and information that we need to see. The conclusion, then, is that we must intentionally set aside our perceptions, and must put in conscious effort to see things that we are not looking for, in order to become more effective in our leadership.
A second way in which listening happenings is with your mouth. This does not happen in the same way that you listen with your eyes, because your mouth does not generally take in information to enhance your understanding in the way that your eyes do (to state the obvious). What your mouth does, however, is provide feedback and response that reflects your listening. Your mouth is the vehicle through which you mirror what you hear, and so it communicates how you are listening.
How, then, does this happen? Primarily two ways: rephrasing, and asking questions. First, as you listen to someone speak (or as you observe activity, behavior, and responses), you need to give back a rephrasing of what you think you hear (and see). This communicates that you are trying to listen, but it also gives you the opportunity to validate and refine what you think you hear, by giving and then receiving additional feedback. Second, ask open-ended and clarifying questions that help you to have a deeper and more accurate understanding of what you hear – also known as active listening – which gives you a better grasp of what others (namely, your peers and your subordinates) are experiencing and feeling. This will better enable you to respond to what you hear (and see), which – again – will help you to be a more effective leader. One extremely important caveat, though, is this: when you ask questions, you must ensure that it is safe for people to answer; otherwise you will not get the kind of feedback you need.
Finally, and most obviously, listening does happen with your ears. In the book Quiet (2012), Susan Cain discusses implications of introverted personality tendencies for leadership, and applies it to a lesson on listening when she shares the experience of a sales person who states, “In sales there’s a truism that ‘we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionately.’ I believe that’s what makes someone really good at selling or consulting – the number one thing is they’ve got to really listen well” (p. 240). What this really means is that we need to close our mouths and let others say what they need to say, and we actually need to be attentive to what they say. We need to follow Enzo’s counsel of not interrupting, or not taking over or sidetracking the conversation, but rather consciously hearing the words, the meaning, and the heart of what others are saying.
In essence, an effective leader needs to be an effective listener, and that requires intentional effort and discipline. Learn to listen with your eyes by observing, learn to listen with your mouth by rephrasing and asking questions, and learn to listen with your ears by setting aside your own interests and hearing the meaning of others’ words. Be a better listener and you will be a better leader.