Lin Pan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Can You Learn to Listen to Your Team Like Your Lives Depend on It?

There’s an amusement park called Kennywood in my hometown that boasts a historic roller coaster called the Thunderbolt. It was always a fascination and a fear as a kid.

Maybe it was the plywood cutout of a child that served as the foreboding benchmark for those of us who were tall enough—and hopefully brave enough—to make the nerve-racking, stomach-lurching trip. It was well known that many kids would stuff food vendors’ napkins in their shoes or stand ever so slightly on their toes, hoping to get admitted. 

Kennywood Thunderbolt DSCN2744

What made the Thunderbolt so awe-inspiring was a section that would take you from the top of the ride to a scream-inducing “drop” toward the bottom where your eyes met the Monongahela River. Pittsburgh is a very hilly city, and the Thunderbolt was cleverly designed to make you feel as if you were falling from the top of a hill toward the river’s edge. My hands get sweaty just thinking about it!

If you’ve ever ridden a roller coaster like the Thunderbolt, you might have thought, “Is this safe, and how does anyone really know?”

Thankfully there are highly trained, niche engineers who specialize in amusement ride testing, performing thousands of dizzying rides in many parks all over the world with crash-test dummies. 

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It makes me wonder how might our leadership outcomes improve if we applied the same rigor as these engineers and designers? In other words, if our customers’ or team members’ lives depended on it.

Take listening, for example. I hosted bestselling author and consultant Heather R. Younger on my Off the Rak series earlier this year. Heather has recently published The Art of Active Listening: How People at Work Feel Heard, Valued, and Understood. One of the many perks of hosting this series is that I get to read my guests’ latest books if they’re authors.

It’s hard to think of a situation where you wouldn’t benefit from exceptional listening skills; yet time and again, our urgency lags and our senses coast. What we miss are opportunities to connect, build trust, collaborate more creatively, and engage each other in effective problem-solving. A lack of listening on a large scale or from the top down can have far-reaching bottom-line effects.

As we adapt to hybrid and remote work, charting an effective approach to active listening becomes even more challenging. Heather effectively walks readers through a model called The Cycle of Active Listening. The cycle has five stops on its journey. “Recognizing the unsaid” is the first stop and worth noting because it’s about being all in.

It’s a little like preparing to turn right when the roller coaster swings left, because to be a great listener, you can’t simply listen; you have to do the unexpected: engage all your senses beyond your ears.

One of my favorite aspects of every chapter in Heather’s book addresses what many of us—perhaps unconsciously—begin with a resigned attitude: active listening in a virtual setting. Here is a sampling of some of her virtual meeting quick tips that I found helpful:

  • Set expectations for whether cameras can be off or should be on so everyone can do a better job of understanding one another.
  • Pay attention to what you see in the background in virtual meetings. Take the time to mention what you see as a way to build connections with the other person and their home life. (Note: Never poke fun. Instead, connect and uplift.)
  • Avoid using your computer for anything other than the project or task at hand. Step away from other devices that might distract you from the conversation. Turn off notifications, close unnecessary tabs, and mute your mic when listening.
  • Show your commitment by nodding and making eye contact. Lean into the screen to show an investment in the conversation. Ask yourself if your expression shows that you’re engaged. Avoid multitasking or reviewing your inbox during meetings.
  • Periodically reiterate key points in the conversation to ensure that you’re fully understanding what’s being discussed. Stay curious, and ask questions for clarity.

“Active listening is the doorway to increased belonging, loyalty, profitability, innovation, and so much more. It is the difference between thinking we understand what people want and knowing what they want,” says Heather.

Great listening techniques are easy to implement if you focus on these outcomes that Heather celebrates in the quote above. Don’t let poor listening skills crash your test dummies. Instead, connect, set expectations, lean in, make eye contact, be present, and reiterate key points so you can arrive safely having enjoyed the ride.

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