The Art of Listening: A Critical Skill for Leadership Training

In school, most of us were taught how to speak, how to present clearly, how to make a good argument, defend a position, ask questions, make a point, but few of us have been taught how to listen. We may have been told to listen or scolded for not listening but seldom taught how to do a better job of it. So, we grow up thinking that listening is “not” doing something. That it is passive. We are either good at it or not. But that is not really true. Listening is a skill that can be learned and developed like any other skill.

I know of very few leadership training classes that don’t mention listening. But most still present it as, “You should listen better.” While it is true that most of us “should” listen better, that doesn’t really help us a great deal. Even those that promote active listening, often do so in such a superficial way that it does more harm than good. But why is it so important? It is a leadership behavior that influences every facet of organizational performance.

employee involvement leadership training skillsWhen facilitating an employee involvement team in which the team members had become quite cynical about “corporate initiatives,” they decided to test their managers. There was a system in place to allow teams to elevate concerns that were out of their scope of authority or ability. So this team decided to complain that there was no gym for employees to use for a workout. They reasoned (tongue in cheek) that they would be more productive after some vigorous exercise. Since this was during a difficult economic period for the company, they knew that the company could ill afford to design and build a new gym. They figured that their managers would either ignore the request all together or that they would be scolded for wasting everyone’s time. When this issue came up in the leadership meeting (all issues were placed on the agenda), the leadership team reacted in a very predictable way. They said, “The team is just trying to embarrass us. They know full well we can’t afford to build a gym. This is just a test and not a very fair one at that.” The facilitator responded by acknowledging that that was probably true.

How frustrating it must be for the leadership team to be working so hard but have to deal with something like this. Their commitment, however, was to treat every concern as legitimate. So, after considerable discussion, they decided to have one of the members of the leadership team visit the team with a counter proposal. At the next team meeting, the leadership team member made a presentation (with slides and handouts and everything) in which he said, “The answer to your issues is ‘No’, we are not going to build a gym. But there are a number of things we can do. We could put up a basketball hoop. We could install an inexpensive running track, or maybe put a couple of treadmills in an unused conference room.” He then asked if there were any questions. Silence! After he left, the team discussed what had happened. After acknowledging how embarrassed they were, they concluded, “If they are really going to listen to us, maybe we should tell them what we really need.” There are a number of ways to look at this incident. You could say that a lot of people spent a lot of time arguing about something that everyone knew wasn’t going to happen anyway. But also, the leadership team now has a group of employees who are going to do their best to give them important information about what is needed on the factory floor to be successful. What is that worth?

Most of us now know of the Gallup poll that says the number one reason people leave their job is because of a poor relationship with the boss. “People leave managers not companies…in the end, turnover is mostly a management issue.” Gallup added that poorly managed work groups are on average 50 percent less productive and 44 percent less profitable than well-managed groups. There is a long list of “bad boss” behaviors that contribute to poor relationships and these are often cited in the studies. But, the most common complaint is, “My boss doesn’t listen to me.” Even during these economically challenging times, we see evidence that poor leadership is hurting organizations. Reported in USA Today by Christopher Leonard And Christopher S. Rugaber, AP Business Writers, “One sign of better economic times is when more people start finding jobs. Another is when they feel confident enough to quit them. More people quit their jobs in the past three months than were laid off — a sharp reversal after 15 straight months in which layoffs exceeded voluntary departures, suggesting the job market is finally thawing. Some of the quitters are leaving for new jobs. Others have no firm offers.” Which employees are leaving? You guessed it. The best performers! “About 25% of companies’ top performers said they plan to leave their current job within a year,” according to a survey published in the May edition of the Harvard Business Review. By contrast, in 2006, just 10% planned to leave their jobs within a year. The survey questioned 20,000 workers who were identified by their employers as “high potential.”

While there are many things that leaders can do to build better relationships with their team members, most actions work better if the leader has been doing a good job of listening. By understanding the needs of the team members, the leader can better judge what actions will have a positive impact and what actions are likely to backfire. And, the act of listening itself will have a powerful effect on the relationship with the team member. It is the starting point for building trust, credibility, and all of the other things that are necessary for good teamwork.

There are, of course, some leaders who don’t listen simply because they don’t want to or feel they don’t have time and so forth. Some genuinely and mistakenly believe they already are good listeners. Others recognize the deficit but don’t know how to fix it. Effective leadership training can address all three of these issues.

“I don’t want to. Don’t have time.” How often I’ve heard the refrain, “I’m not a babysitter. We don’t have time to deal with every little gripe and complaint. We’d never get any work done.” Effective leadership training will help to make the case that good listening is simply an essential part of the problem solving process. All problem solving begins by accurately defining the problem. When someone else comes to you with a problem, the information needed to correctly define the problem resides inside that person’s head. Sometimes the crucial facts are obscured by their emotions. If the person is dismissed, hurried, mocked, criticized, or interrogated, the emotions will escalate and the real source of the problem may stay hidden. Effective listening, especially skillful active listening, will help the person lower their emotional level and think more clearly about the facts of the situation. Trying to ignore the problem or “brush it off,” often leads to prolonged difficulties or even expending resources to solve the wrong problem. Solving the right problem when it needs to be solved is a time saver. While it requires an investment of your time initially, over the longer term, you save a great deal by handling the problems sooner. Good listening is not just a good relationship builder, it is also extremely practical. It is an investment.

But, what about those who think that they are great listeners but aren’t? It is not uncommon during team building sessions to hear team members say, “My boss never listens. It’s useless to try and tell him or her anything.” Upon hearing this feedback, the manager often says, “That’s not true. I have an open door policy. I make it a point to talk to everyone on my team every day. We have regular team meetings where we bring up our concerns and try to address them.” Although the team leader’s intentions may be sincere, he or she may behave in ways that subtly communicate, “Don’t bother me.” Most of those signals are, of course, nonverbal cues that the manager may not even recognize. Leadership training can influence this behavior with experiential activities that demonstrate how easy it is to send unintentional messages with one’s nonverbal messages. If during the leadership training, the participants are given ample time to practice new, improved listening skills and given lots of feedback, they have a very good chance of learning to recognize opportunities to improve their listening skills.

The most straightforward situation is, of course, the participant who already recognizes his or her problem and is looking for a way to improve. In this case, the facilitator of the leadership training should concentrate on building the confidence of the participant so that he or she will be willing to make the effort it takes to change. Our listening skills (or lack thereof) have been learned over a lifetime and it is never easy to overcome such habits. But, it is possible and leadership training like Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Leader Effectiveness Training truly provides a solid basis for understanding the need for better listening, providing the necessary feedback, and the guided practice required for modifying old habits.

Like many things good leaders need to do to become more effective, learning to listen is a challenge. But without this important skill, everything else becomes that much more difficult. Leadership training that emphasizes good listening skills should precede most other training. The better the leader listens, the faster he or she will learn the rest. He or she will also discover that whatever changes have been planned will be executed with a lot less pain if the team members believe their leader is truly listening to their concerns.

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