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Give people a damn good listening to

The experience taught me that sometimes, as a leader, you simply have to give people a damn good listening to. Only then can they move on. You have to recognize their emotions. By recognizing those emotions, you validate them and show that you understand. By asking questions to clarify, you show that you are interested. By resisting the urge to propose solutions, by simply listening to them and showing that you care, you give them one of the most precious commodities that you as a leader have – your time. That shows them respect, and generates respect from them.

I have spoken about the ‘listening contract’. This simply means that you have to listen first in order to earn the right to be heard. When you listen first, you can come to a better understanding of the other person’s point of view, where they stand on issues, how they feel about matters, and you can better tune your own communication to their view of the world. Also, when people feel they have been heard, they are much more likely to be receptive to what you have to say.

To be a good listener, leaders have to have a rare mix of humility and confidence and curiosity. They must have the humility to admit that they do not have all the answers, that they do not know everything and that they are prepared to learn from others. To show that level of vulnerability requires confidence, and to be interested in people requires curiosity.

I have said before that great leaders are prepared to take big bets and set stretching goals, even though they are not sure how they are going to attain them. They need only to be sure about and trust their team to be able to find solutions. They need to respect the team’s ability to come up with the ideas that will enable success. When people contribute their own ideas to solving big problems or achieving big challenges, they are much more committed to what has to be done. Probably, as a leader, you would already have seen what needs to be done, but allowing other people to get there by giving them a good listening to and nudging them to the solution that they ‘discover’ for themselves, means that their level of commitment will be higher than you could ever otherwise achieve.

I have heard it said that 85 per cent of what we know we have learned through listening. In a typical business day, we spend 45 per cent of our time listening, 30 per cent of our time talking, 16 per cent reading and 9 per cent writing. Listening is critical and yet less than 2 per cent of the leaders I have interviewed said that they had had any formal learning to understand and improve listening skills and techniques.

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