It happens more often than I’d like to admit: My wife looks me in the eyes and says, “Walt, you aren’t listening to me!” And what’s interesting is that I always have the exact same thought whenever that happens: Now, that’s a strange way to start a conversation.
It’s an old joke, I know, but there’s a ring of truth to it. Sometimes we’re so absorbed in our own thoughts and interests that we miss the important things going on around us. And that’s why we need to improve our listening skills, regardless of whether its with our loved ones, our friends, or in our relationships at work.
I am a big believer in the power of listening as a leader, which is one reason I devoted so much space to the topic in Transfluence. But there’s always more to learn, and I learned a good bit about active listening from Heather Younger by reading her book on the topic and by having her as a guest on Off the Rak.
“My wife is happy that I’ve read your book,” I told Heather, “because I’m working on some of your recommendations!”
I’m convinced that listening is one of the most important things we can do as leaders. If we aren’t listening, we are leading in ignorance. And a struggling organization will never find its way when leaders are blinded by ignorance.
“Active listening is the difference between thinking we know what someone wants and knowing what they want,” Heather told me. “And this is massive. It really is massive. As we think about even rolling out into the market with new products, thinking about new product processes, or change management inside of organizations, we are guessing. We are assuming. There is a variable in between the guessing and knowing, and that is active listening.”
Heather breaks down active listening into five areas: recognize the unsaid, seek to understand, decode what’s being said, act on it, and then close the loop. She addressed all of those in our conversation and, of course, she goes into them with great detail in her book. But before you get to those areas, here are two foundational pieces of advice she offered that will set you up for success with active listening.
Lead yourself first
Heather’s second area of active listening is “seek to understand,” but she’s not just talking about understanding what someone else is trying to communicate or understanding the challenges your team faces. That’s important, but it’s hard to understand others or organizational problems if we don’t first understand ourselves.
“We spend a whole lot of time worrying about other people around us and what they’re not doing and what’s not happening,” she said. “The very first thing I would say is focus on you. So do a lot of the inner work required, the self-awareness stuff. Figure out what your biases are and how they impact your workplace. You can control you most and influence you most.”
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Lead with curiosity
There’s power in the “why.” All five of the areas Heather outlines require action—that’s why it’s “active” listening—and that action needs to be founded in a curiosity that seeks a deeper understanding of what’s not said, what is very clearly said, and what’s said that needs decoding.
“Instead of always feeling defensive about what someone might be saying, think about why they’re saying it,” she said. “And don’t try to always come to the point where you have to agree with someone. Come to the point where you can understand someone. Leaning in to understand someone’s experience is more important than saying I have to reach an agreement. I don’t. … People need to get comfortable with saying we don’t agree.”
Leaders who are self-aware and who work to understand the people around them end up hearing things that are really important. That helps create a greater openness to sharing truth, compromising, and avoiding conflict. So even when there are disagreements, people feel heard, valued, and respected. And as a bonus, it’s far less likely that the people around them will begin conversations by pointing out that they aren’t listening.