As hard as giving and receiving feedback is, perhaps listening is more difficult. To succeed in any position in any business, we are increasingly required to dial down our reflexes, close our mouths and open our ears. I’ve written about this before; listening is often taken for granted, yet underused and underestimated.
We spend so much time in our heads formulating words to say that we forget how important it is to listen and to ask questions before responding. Half the time we end up responding to the wrong situation or context because we haven’t taken time to ask for more information.
Listening is even more crucial a habit of mind for leaders, especially in complex organizations where everyone is part of a system with interdependent moving parts.
“Just as we have discovered that humans seem to be built with an almost-perverse inability to give feedback well, we have discovered (as have many others) that we have at least as strong an inability to listen. This is perhaps even more distressing than our inability to naturally give feedback well, because nearly all of us love being listened to and don’t get that enough.” ~ Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnson in Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (Stanford Business Books, 2015).
Berger and Johnson suggest asking two questions to really focus on listening:
- What is this person’s purpose, intent, hope in delivering this message?
- What does this message mean to me?
The authors contend that if we could remember to ask these questions only 5% more of the time than we do now, we would be an unusually good listener and a much better leader. That’s because listening builds trust and relationships. As well, listening is contagious and even more so when demonstrated by leaders. Mediators and diplomats are particularly skilled in listening, but even they have had to learn and refine their skills.
And finally, the authors suggest that the biggest benefit to acquiring a deep listening habit is that leaders are better able to learn early from a changing context. When you listen, it takes you out of your own perspective and reveals new data and patterns you may be missing.
And while this is something we all know already, it’s quickly forgotten in practice, in large part because our brains are built to conserve energy by quickly categorizing input and responding. It’s what Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman calls “fast thinking.” Our brains work as hard as possible to save us the energy of listening carefully and potentially being unsettled by questions we don’t have the answers for.