To be an effective leader, it is crucially important to be a good listener. To be a good listener, I mean a really good listener, there are three conditions that must be met according to Dr. Thomas Gordon. They are: acceptance, empathy, and genuineness. Dr. Gordon studied psychology with Carl Rogers, one of the most famous psychologists of all time. Rogers talked about unconditional positive regard, empathy, and congruence and Tom Gordon applied those concepts to non-therapeutic situations that were practical for parents, teachers, and managers.
Although these ideas are widely accepted as important and valid, they are often poorly understood and poorly taught. Seldom do I begin a leadership training workshop in which none of the participants have heard of Active Listening, win/win problem solving, constructive confrontation and the like. But, as with many corporate jargon words, these ideas have not been taught well and people have many, often goofy ideas about what they mean. Participants will sometimes moan, “Oh no, not another touchy-feely, group hug, encounter groupy thing!” (Evidence that their previous experiences were less than satisfactory!) “I don’t have time for this &*%$. I have a job to do. But in the “real world”, there is little that is more important to a leader than to understand the needs of his or her team members.
Organizations are systems of relationships and it is difficult for a leader to achieve much without the support of his or her team members. If the team members do not believe that their needs are understood and respected it is hard to imagine that they will give their best to the organization. So what are these conditions and how do you meet them?
It is important, I believe, to understand what they are not. Acceptance is not agreement. Empathy is not sympathy. Genuineness is not sensitivity. While there is nothing wrong with seeking points of agreement, having some sympathy for someone who is having a really hard time or being sensitive to hurtful topics, these are not the building blocks of effective listening. Let’s look at each one.
Acceptance is the ability to see another person as exactly who they are and not try to make them into someone else
It also means accepting that the way they look at the world is real for them. It may not be the way you look at things. You may not think it is the right way to look at a situation. You may believe that you would see things differently. You may disagree with them about how to handle a problem. But acceptance means that you are willing, at least for the moment, to accept that their perception and interpretation of the events are absolutely real for them. It also means that you are not trying to get them to change the way they view things, at least for now.
You are not trying to make them feel differently or see things your way or show them how messed up they are. There may be many good reasons to attempt to influence another person to try to get them to see a situation differently. But, to earn the right to do that, you first need to accept their view of things as legitimate. Otherwise, you will just be seen as manipulative or overbearing and the conversation is not likely to be productive.
Empathy is the ability to understand the other person’s point of view – both the content and emotions. It does not mean that you have to have the same feelings or experience the same things or have had the same experience in the past. Have you ever heard someone say, “I know how you feel.” It is difficult not to be sarcastic or to respond defensively. “No you don’t!” Or, how about, “I feel sorry for you.” Wow! How insulting “Can’t you do anything on your own? I need to do this for you as well?”
The ability to take a break from your unique point of view and for a bit, step into another person’s vantage point, take a look around, see what that looks like, is very powerful. The more you can do this, the less likely it is that you will make poor assumptions about that person’s motives and intentions. The benefit for you is that you might learn something. Nothing like looking at something from a different point of view to stimulate new ideas! Have you ever watched a young child examining a new toy or a new place? They look at it from every possible angle, often turning upside down or looking between their legs to get a different perspective. The benefit for the other is that they can have an informed conversation with a person (you) who has actually made an effort to understand their side of the story.
Genuineness is the willingness to be yourself
To be transparent. To not pretend to be anything other than what you are. You don’t have to be a “therapist” or a “team-oriented boss” or an “attentive husband.” You just have to be you. You do need to be willing to allow the same for the other person. You must truly want to help the other person find solutions that are satisfactory to them, not to you. The “Don’t let anyone know how you really feel” gang, or the “Put on your happy face” crowd, don’t believe that team members want or need to know anything about you except that you are the boss. They believe that if they reveal too much about themselves, others will use that information against them. They are afraid that they will be hurt. “We camouflage our true being before others to protect ourselves against criticism or rejection.” (Sydney Jourard on “understanding.”). But, if teamwork is built on trust, how can you achieve that without some semblance of frankness and openness?
What these traits do not show is weakness. Often, managers fear being good listeners because they believe it will make them vulnerable. It is safer, they believe, to surround themselves with all of the macho bluster that is often heard in the boardrooms and on the factory floors. “We have to make the tough decisions.” “We’re not babysitters.” Or, the newer disparaging admonition, “Put on your big girl (or big boy) pants.” In other words, just get over it. Grow up. Don’t deal with people’s emotions, feelings, or personal lives. Don’t be such a wimp. Stay strong. But, the irony of this is that those who try to ignore those things that are important to others (“They shouldn’t feel that way.”) are often the ones undone by the poor performance of the employees they have chosen to ignore.
It seems ironic to me that those who cry the loudest about “babying” their employees are often the ones who are most afraid. They will say that it is about getting the job done but often it goes deeper than that. The evidence suggests that organizations in which there are good relationships and good teamwork outperform those organizations where there is a lot of mistrust, fear, defensiveness, and backstabbing. The remedy for these kinds of productivity killers is not pampering, avoidance, or bubbly personalities, but clear, frank communication: both on the sending and receiving end.
These ideas have been with us for quite a while but are sometimes slow to really take hold in organizations because they are constantly being supplanted by “new” corporate jargon (“leverage that, incentivize this, take this in a different direction instead of “you’re fired”, down-size (instead of “layoff”).
As long as we keep coming up with new names for these ideas, people will not trust us enough to really believe what we tell them. Good leadership training will stay away from the buzzwords and help participants really learn how to enter a conversation without trying to “fix” the other person, understand the other’s point of view, and to do so while being yourself.