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Listening by leaders – it’s part-science, part-art

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I am often asked for my views on the main challenges faced by leaders, or what to look for in potential leaders. While internal thought processes immediately scurry through dozens I have come across from experience and recent assignments, on brief reflection, a few always rise to the surface as being particularly important.

Of course, leaders have to provide direction, make tough important decisions, give speeches and lead strategic initiatives. But realistically they also have to build trust in themselves and the organisation through their leadership. Directly related to this is the oft-discussed activity of listening, which is to some extent common sense but is also part-science and part-art.

A few leaders and managers are naturally good listeners; they know no other way. Many are not and they should think about this carefully and work on it. Fortunately it is one of those things which can be improved with the right attitude and willingness to adjust one’s styles of behaviour, thinking and interaction.

While many leaders appear to be listening when engaged with one or more others, careful study or experience with them can confirm otherwise. In my view, this is a serious failing for leadership, so calls for very careful thought. Let’s consider it in more detail.

First up though, let’s look at the positive side and consider some obvious benefits of good listening in the initial phase of this process:

  • as leader or senior manager you are showing a genuine interest in the other person which makes them feel more engaged and more likely drawn to open and honest communication with you and, ultimately, trust you;
  • you are showing respect, which makes the other person feel good;
  • you build confidence as the other person is more likely to feel there is a chance they will be ‘heard’ and their comments acted upon;
  • the listener feels it is not one-way communication and it is more akin to a discussion between like-minded professionals; the other person feels confident some good may come of it;
  • if this is a pattern from past experiences for the listener you will start earning their trust and respect, arguably the most important foundational element for the best kind of professional services firm leadership;
  • you will have their loyalty and support and this will rub off on others;
  • as a result more of a team effort starts to evolve in the organisation and things mysteriously get done and better results are achieved; and
  • finally, the leaders’ individual brand (what other individuals feel and think) strengthens and this can only be good for that leader and the organisation she or he heads up.

When I think back on a life in law firm partnership, managing partner roles or consulting in and to legal industry service professionals, I have come across dozens of people in leadership or management roles who let themselves down by not being good listeners. What are some characteristics that stand out:

  • regularly arriving late for meetings without explanation or apology or with poor excuses indicative of not caring (and being oblivious to others doing the same thing);
  • low levels of emotional intelligence (EQ) (in itself, such an important determinant of good leadership);
  • clearly being only interested in their perspective, conclusions or views;
  • ill-considered early responses or jumping to premature conclusions;
  • prompted by something said by the other person, interrupting and going off at a tangent unrelated to the main subject (extremely off-putting to the other person);
  • poor body language –
    • slouching back in a chair;
    • simply looking disinterested;
    • fiddling with something;
    • foot tapping;
    • negative verbal clues;
    • fidgeting;
  • downright rudeness –
    • taking a call or interruptions from others mid-meeting;
    • leaving a device switched on and sometimes glancing at it or reacting to sounds;
    • talking across people or cutting them off in mid-sentence.

What are some of the things leaders and managers should concentrate on improving or doing? Importantly some of these are not only about what takes place in a meeting but rather, after that. What is done following the meeting is easily as important as what took place at the meeting;

  • meticulous timeliness for the meeting;
  • proper prior explanation for any upcoming interruptions;
  • recognising that often others with whom they are meeting may be extremely nervous, possibly petrified, and making allowances for this and trying to put them at ease;
  • good body language – I’m no expert on this important subject but good summaries of do’s and don’ts abound on the internet. The obvious ones that spring to mind include eye contact, leaning forward, taking some notes, asking for clarification, verbal clues, undertaking to follow up or asking the other party to do so (if this is appropriate);
  • be honest and sensitive in your response/s. If you can’t help, say so, but explain why. Offer alternatives and a wise course forward;
  • after the meeting:
    • do whatever you undertook to do or delegate someone to do it for you;
    • follow up in an appropriate way, even by seeking out the person concerned;
    • remember what the issue was about and touch on it at a future time to see whether it has been addressed or the appropriate steps were taken. The much-loved and respected Nelson Mandela was quite remarkable in finding time to follow up with people, many in so-called lowly positions, he had talked to over the years. Through this he naturally built trust and respect and much more;
  • by doing these things and more, leaders set a good example and this style of leadership will quickly permeate an organisation.

I hope these pointers prove helpful reminders of some of the important things we can do, or should not do, around the art and science of listening!

with best wishes,

Sean Larkan, Principal, Edge International