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How people react to poor listening

Recently, one of my managing directors came to see me – at my request – at the end of a brutally long day. I had asked him for an update on a big project he was leading on my behalf. I was tired and anxious to get on with some reading I had to do for a meeting early the next morning, with one of our most important clients. Worse, I had forgotten what the meeting with him was about, and told him so. Every signal I was sending told him that I was in no mood to listen.

He made a valiant attempt to bring me up to speed, but ran out of steam when he saw how distracted and impatient I was. I didn’t bother to ask any questions, and at the end of his report I simply offered a weak thank you and a half-hearted congratulations on the progress he had made. He left the room and I could see from his body language how dispirited he was.

All that night I was bothered and feeling guilty about how badly I had treated him. The next day I visited him in his office and frankly admitted to how badly I had performed the night before. I apologized and said that I had not given him a good listening to and would he mind telling me again where he had got to?

This time I listened more attentively and with much greater enthusiasm, asking more questions and showing a lot more interest. His own body language and enthusiasm was dramatically different, and I could tell that my apology and second attempt to listen to him had gone a long way to repairing the damage I had inflicted the night before.

I had not offered solutions or suggestions during either session. The only difference was how enthusiastically I had listened. The outcomes could not have been more different. At the end of the first session he went away disillusioned and demotivated. By the end of the second session, his enthusiasm and motivation were back again.

As I have already said, listening is one of the most important behaviours of good leaders. It is the one that employees most desire, but it is most often the one they feel is least delivered. Employees watch leaders for their behaviours and scrutinize their actions for the signals that tell them what their bosses think is really important. If they pick up the signal that their bosses don’t think listening is a good thing, then you can be assured they will, in turn, not bother to listen to their own followers, peers and other colleagues.

Talking of sending signals, leaders are often unaware of how their behaviours impact on their followers, and are shocked and dismayed when they learn how what they do is disrupting the organization – very often in ways that are the polar opposite of what they are trying to achieve, as we will see now…

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