“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
How do you listen as a leader? Have you ever really spent much time as a leader thinking about how you listen? A huge part of your success is determined by how you listen. There is the old adage that you have two ears and one mouth and should use them proportionally. The challenge with that adage for most of us is awareness; we may not spend much time observing how we listen. Some things to think about when it comes to how you listen:
Listening and hearing are two different things:
Hearing is a biological phenomenon that occurs in the body whereby sound waves register and vibrate in our ears “producing” a sound that we “hear.” Listening is different. Listening is a linguistic phenomenon where we as humans create meaning and stories in an interpretation of what we have heard. Take something as simple as the statement “Hello.” As a human, assuming that my hearing works correctly, when someone says the word, I can hear it. What I perceive and conclude though will be different from what other people have “heard”. If I hear hello from a random stranger, in a strange town I have never been in, that word may produce a very different meaning than if I hear hello from a loved one that I have not seen in some time. In both instances hello was heard, but received, listened to, very differently.
We live in language – therefore what we listen to determines our future. We are linguistic beings and it is in language that our futures unfold. As you read this, as you read anything new or that creates meaning, you are opening up a new future. Think about it, as you are reading this blog, you are actually listening, although the words are spoken in your own head, you are listening. And, what you are listening to determines and influences how your future unfolds. What you listen to determines what new possibilities are available to you. This is the power of language and what we listen to.
Listening is more than just receiving data.
Our old model of listening was that we as humans are like machines. One ‘machine’ transmits data via a signal and another ‘machine’ receives the same data. The challenge is that we are human beings and not machines. When two people are in a conversation they both bring the observers they are to the conversation. They bring their histories both as individuals and as people interacting. They both bring moods, emotions, and bodies to the conversations, and it is how they both show up that determines how they listen to one another. If you and I are in a conversation but we have a deep and long history of distrust between us then we will listen to one another very differently than two best friends who have a long history of being there for one another. How we listen as leaders and how we invoke listening in our followers will determine how effectively all parties involved listen to and understand what is said.
Listening is highly creative and interpretive; it is how we create meaning.
Have you ever overheard someone gossiping about a person you know? (I say overheard because I am sure you have never gossiped yourself.) The gossip you overheard was really juicy and revealing. Did that have more meaning to you than maybe a time when you heard someone sharing obscure data about a hobby you have no interest in? The reason that the gossip had more meaning was because of your active interpretation while listening; it engaged your imagination, your sense of suspense and story. Depending on what you bring to the act of listening the story could be powerful, impactful, boring, or sad.
Therefore, we say what we say and others listen how they listen. This can be a huge challenge as a leader. When you speak as a leader, you have the intent of the words, the mood or emotion that the words were spoken in, the history with the intended audience, and the context of the words. The listener though, may assign different meanings to your words; they may listen in a different mood/emotion or body. Think about this, the average person has about a 2000 word vocabulary, and in an average day uses 500 different words in conversations. The 500 most common words in the English language have over 14,000 different meanings. Take a simple word such as love. Love can have many meanings to people, all based on the listener that they are.
How we listen is highly influenced by our bodies and our moods and emotions.
Again, use the word love, but listen to it spoken by someone in a mood of resentment, or jealousy, or anger, or admiration. The mood/emotion in which you listen to someone determines how you will attach meaning to the word. Also, when you are listening are you in a body that is open? Closed? Expanding? Contracting? The body in which listening occurs determines what is listened to and can have a huge effect on the meaning of the conversation.
To become an effective leader one must become an effective listener! To be a leader then, to get others to ‘follow’ you means that you must listen to them. You must learn to listen to more than the words that they speak. You must listen to the moods and emotions in which the words were spoken. You must learn to listen to the context and the meaning in which the speaker spoke their words. It is your ability to listen as a leader that will determine much of your success, so go forth and listen more completely.
Where to start you ask? Spend some time observing how you are listening. In what moods and emotions are you showing up in when you listen? Are you turning your body so that you are connecting with the speaker? When you are listening where is your focus, where are your eyes? How well you listen can determine your future as a leader. As for me, I think I hear my wife calling….