Recently, a top executive shared his secret to the successful interactions he regularly has with his team. He said he always listens intently to what they have to say. But, surely, that’s page one in every CEO’s handbook? But, actually, to understand others and what might be blurring their edges, it’s essential to hone in acutely on what they say and the messages which might be behind those sentences. This particular exec invites each team member to a regular short but sharp face-to-face meeting to give them the chance to reveal what is happening in their world and, more importantly, how they might be feeling. “I always hand the session over to them,” our exec reveals, “I ask them to tell me what’s going on with them today, and then I sit back and carefully listen. I might occasionally encourage them to ‘go on’ but it’s not about finding solutions at that moment, giving advice or even offering my support, it’s more about them taking the lead and sharing openly at a time when they know they have my complete attention.”
As writer and philosopher, GK Chesterton said, “There is a lot of difference between listening and hearing.” The term ‘empathetic listening’ has been used to describe those who can understand another’s point of view – but how can that even begin to happen unless you are wholeheartedly committed to actively tuning in to the nuances of a person’s dialogue?
Most psychologists will agree that there is immense power in the simple act of saying something out loud. For a person to feel they have the platform to speak frankly, it’s essential to establish a safe space to voice any discomforts and normalise the practise of attentive listening. Of course, trust plays an important role here too. How can someone be honest, without fear of judgement, unless they genuinely believe their recipient is a person they can count on? If a conversation is interrupted, dismissed or there appears to be a sense that the listener is simply waiting for their turn to talk, communication will be shut down. Not only does this stop the chatter, but it also stymies the bigger picture – innovation, daring, adaptability, leadership. Because, to be confident enough to stride forward and take risks, you need to believe that your voice matters.
Julia, an account manager in a leading marketing company, shares: “I’ve had good and bad managers. But the worst ones are those who don’t see me as a person. They just want to get the job done regardless of what I might have to say or the input I want to offer. If someone doesn’t fully listen to you, it’s inevitable you’ll end feeling derailed and unimportant, and as a result, become less confident and less productive.”
In the competitive world of business, it’s easy to believe that any vulnerabilities or revelations of struggle should be buried alongside that pile of ongoing admin that never gets addressed. But how incredibly naïve it is to think that our people don’t have their dark days, or wobble because their home life is in free fall, or their mental wellbeing has taken a severe bashing in these past two years of pandemic living. And so, when you do listen attentively, it’s inevitable you will be privy to some things that are extremely uncomfortable. It’s important to invite these sticky subjects further into the conversation. While perhaps hard to hear, they give us insights into that person’s situation, provide clarity about the effects this may be having, while also instigating a possible route forward. A good listener will understand that these difficult words have been hard to share and therefore need to be received without judgement so that positive transformation can take place.
In Dr Kathryn Mannix’s book Listen – How To Find The Words For Tender Conversations, she writes: “First of all, let’s forget about speaking. We’re going to listen without trying to formulate what to say next: listening, not to answer, but to understand.” When someone truly believes they are understood and recognised as a fallible human (which we all are), they can be their true selves without embarrassment or shame. Even the basic knowledge that another person is genuinely curious about them is a powerful thing and can lead to solutions rather than setbacks.
Back to our executive. One of the main benefits he has noticed with his modelling of active listening is that his team then go on to practice it too. “It’s the ripple effect; paying close attention to what is really going on creates a widespread culture of inclusion and empathy,” he says, “It’s simply about taking the time to listen and learn.”