I had a conversation today with a good friend of mine who, from an ideological point of view, is VERY different from me. I find that when I talk with her I really need to listen to what she is saying. It is easy for me to become dismissive or label her a certain way because her views are different from mine on many things. Notice I did not say her ideas were wrong and mine was right, just that we tend to think differently.
I will say her ideas are always thoughtful and logical, and she makes many great points; it is just that in the end, I feel my points are equally as thoughtful and logical and… different. Sometimes she is able to convince me, sometimes I am able to convince her and sometimes we just agree to disagree. Every so often we also find common ground and come up with something we can both agree upon. The key is I don’t stop talking to her because we don’t agree; in fact, I look forward to talking to her because it helps me gain perspective.
The Desire to Listen
When I look around our business landscape, today I see many leaders who really do not know how to listen. They have already made up their mind about how things ought to be and are not willing to listen to others who see things differently. I think the more one is in leadership positions and the longer one leads the harder it becomes to listen to others who have differing points of view. I also believe listening becomes even more difficult when major decisions, which have taken great investment to make, are questioned.
For example, how likely are you to listen to someone in your organization who is questioning the validity of your strategic plan? Instead of listening to the concerns, it is easier to label the person as ‘not a team player’ and move on. This is because as a leader, there are usually many people who tell you what you want to hear. You get used to expecting your orders to be carried out instead of questioned. It gets to the point where, as leaders, we become overly confident in our plans and decisions and that those who have different views are just wrong.
I do feel there are times when people are just wrong, but more often than not there may be more than one right answer or multiple wrong answers. If leaders force themselves to listen, especially to those who have different perspectives it may be possible to create better answers to the problems they face and to get better buy-in from others. In other words, if you REALLY listen you can be a better leader and your organization can perform better!
How Can Leaders Listen Better?
- Ignore labels. Stop trying to put people into convenient categories. As soon as we label people managers, individual contributors, high potentials, plateaued, complainers, troublemakers, educated, and/or uneducated, it becomes easy to write the person off and not listen.
- Empathize. Involve the contrary point of view early in planning and decision making processes.
- Budget the time. When leaders are too busy or rushed, listening is seen as a time-waster.
- Be deliberate. Go ahead and build ties to others who you know usually think differently than you, and build systems and a supportive culture that encourages you to speak.
These may sound simple, but they are difficult to practice. Leaders get used to hearing what they want and don’t want to hear; listening to those that confirm their point of view and convincing themselves other points of view or perspectives are uninformed or wrong. There is security in this, but it also is a recipe for poor decision-making. There is a great probability the leader will miss something.
In the end, there are times when the leader has to have the courage to make the decision. It may not be popular and it may not be right, but at least if he/she truly listened to others, the leader’s decision can be informed, with a strong sense of many different perspectives.
So, the next time you are in a leadership position and start thinking of someone with alternate views as a label and start minimizing what they have to say, ask yourself, are you listening to what this person is really saying? Is there anything in what the person is saying that is valid, thoughtful, and something from which I can learn? If you do this, you may discover new perspectives and insights that will lead to becoming a more effective leader.