The benefits of listening
Genuine listening generates respect, rapport and trust. Productivity is improved and problems solved more rapidly. Miscommunication and conflict are uncovered quickly. People’s true motives, values and feelings are surfaced. Ideas and solutions are generated. Most importantly, genuine listening generates shared purpose, values, meaning and alignment – all key to effective teamwork and to high performance.
As we have seen, the purpose of leadership communication is not simply to message; it is to engage. To engage, you have to listen. If you want to be truly inspiring, if you want to win hearts and minds, you have to learn to listen with great skill. No matter how senior you are, the chances are that you are not as good at listening as you should be.
I was lucky enough to work for Dr Peter Watson when he became CEO of AEA Technology. Peter was tasked with moving AEAT from a Civil Service culture to a consultancy-based business capable of thriving in a commercial world. Many employees were extremely angry at what they perceived to be unnecessary changes enforced top down. It must have been tempting for Peter to surround himself with a layer of management and hide behind his authority. Instead, he did the opposite: he took away the barriers, went out on the road and had conversations with people everywhere.
Peter chose meetings small enough for his audience to feel personally engaged and for him to hear individual opinions. He listened to everyone’s point of view and answered everyone’s questions. If he did not know the answer, he promised to find out and respond individually. He always did so. This resonated; people felt they had been heard. Anger began to dissipate, the organization was able to evolve.
Peter understood what every leader needs to understand: the power of the ‘listening contract’. This says: ‘I’ll listen to you and hear what you say and think. Therefore you owe me the same.’ The contract is simple, but requires leaders to escape the trap of handing down messages to the troops. Peter faced a largely hostile workforce. Instead of lecturing, he listened. This gained him credit: as he had listened, so people listened to him. His authenticity won them over; they came to believe that Peter himself believed in what he was doing.
Secondly, after meetings were over, Peter acted on the things people said, not only by finding answers to questions but in the way he built and communicated his plans for the organization’s future. He capitalized on the benefits to be derived from listening ‘beyond the words’ by hearing not only the concerns but the positive ideas that lay behind them.
Peter’s story demonstrates how listening is one of the most valued attributes of leaders, how it can open up audiences, influence and refocus them on more positive and profitable objectives. It changes behaviours and achieves results.