For the last two days, we've been in a meeting where we were asked to listen. As a group, we don't always do that well, and after working so hard to listen the first day, some gave up and took over once they were put into small groups on the second day.
I know of an excellent pastor who is not a good listener either. He is a talented speaker, and though he does ask questions, he doesn't listen to the answers.
Why is it that we have such a hard time listening? Pondering my own listening deficiencies caused me to notice those who do listen well. I found that good listeners seem to willingly forfeit a few things in a conversation.
1. Good listeners sacrifice the need to prove they are right.
We can gain new perspectives by keeping our mouths shut and by seeking to understand what others have to offer. Certainly we should ask leading questions, but we should ask them with an intention of hearing some opinions that differ from our own. One of my favorite creativity books of old is A Whack on the Side of the Head. In it, Roger Von Oech says, "Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one we have." He suggests that we should always be looking for a second right answer, which means that we should find many answers to a question.
When we enter a conversation wanting to prove that we already have the right answer, we miss out on the whole point of the dialogue.
We may as well go back to our desks and do our work with all of our own right answers. Yet if we really want to find other suggestions, why don't we employ some listening skills we already know? Could we consider a listening experiment? In our next meeting, let's decide ahead of time to sacrifice the need to prove that we are right. When we hear opinions that differ from our right answer, let's choose to resist the urge to pipe in with the right answer. Instead, we can seek to understand without making judgement either verbally or in our thoughts. We may discover a lot of other interesting right answers.
2. Good listeners sacrifice the desire to educate others.
In my first job, my boss intentionally set up projects that forced me to learn technical skills that would expand my career knowledge. He had my highest respect. He could have easily done these jobs himself, but instead, he chose to let me learn while he listened and served as an advisor to me. When we grow in leadership, we move away from the need to constantly teach others through our words.
Great leaders ask the hard questions and listen to gain more understanding.
Being a teacher, I am guilty of over-sharing my experiences. When I reflect on what my boss did for me, it gives me an idea about how to apply his strategy in a meeting. Rather than saying, "When I was a . . .", what if we ask a question about another person's experience? What if we assign the project to a team of capable people who can do some research and tell us about what they have found, and refrain from saying, "That won't work." Maybe we will learn something when we choose not to educate others.
3. Good listeners sacrifice the thought that they have the best answers.
Successful leaders have little to prove. The transformational leaders choose to affirm others who have good ideas, and they build a team by empowering the members to use their gifts. When leaders choose to dictate answers instead of listening well, they limit themselves to their own perspectives.
While servant leaders must share the vision, they employ gifted people to find answers and to execute the vision with excellence.
A problem may occur when a group is assigned a task to find the answers but one person dominates the discussion. A kind woman asked during a recent meeting, "Am I talking too much?" No, she had not talked much at all. Usually, the one who does talk excessively forgets to check herself and ask that question.
We once lived near a store that gave out Store Bucks. On auction day, we could use our Store Bucks to bid for items in the auction, but when we were out of Store Bucks, we were finished. How nice it would be, at times, to pass out Meeting Bucks. Each time we speak, we use a Meeting Buck. When we run out, we will only be allowed to listen.
How about another experiment? Why not take notes on what others are saying? How often do they talk? How much do you value their contribution?
Most importantly, let's rate ourselves. Are we the ones telling everyone else that our idea is the best idea, or are we listening to other ideas as well? Are we willing to limit what we say in order to hear something better?
Being a good listener requires humility. It allows us to grow as a leader, and it informs others that we value them and what they say. Are we willing to make some sacrifices in order to listen well?
Claudia Johnson, CWLC Leadership Consultant
1Roger Von Oech, A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, Vol. 3 (New York Warner, 1983), 30.