Listening—so simple to understand, so hard to do. I’m talking about real listening—listening to understand—not being silent until it’s your turn to talk. This post is not about HOW to listen. (For that, go here or here). Today we’re going to focus on what you can accomplish with the incredibly powerful tool of listening.

Last week I wrote about living systems. Uncertainty introduces anxiety into any group of people. Anxiety makes people stupid—we react out of fear instead of responding out of beliefs and values. Leaders within a system are prone to this behavior too because they happen to be humans as well.

It’s so tempting to assume that as a leader you need to tell people what to do, especially in a crisis or when anxiety is high; people on your team might even expect this of you—especially if telling has been your default response in the past. There are times that we do need to tell, but we tend to overuse this tool and vastly underuse listening, missing out on the benefits of this powerful tool. Listening well is part of a leader’s job.

Here are a few things that you can accomplish when you take the time and exercise the humility needed to listen well:

  1. Allows YOU time to calm down in an anxious moment: Listening well forces you to think logically, which will help lower your own anxiety in an anxious system. Listening helps you be calm and connected, which helps you make decisions out of your beliefs and values, not out of anxiety.
  2. Helps others re-engage their logical thinking ability: Anxiety makes me stupid. Being listened to makes me smart again. The results of being listened to and understood are so powerful that listening is taught in hostage negotiation trainings. One of the first things the negotiator does is try to get the person holding hostages to start talking. The negotiator takes time to understand the person’s concerns and, more importantly, make them feel understood. In a situation like this, listening well literally saves lives.
  3. Gives you insight into what is causing a person or group to feel anxious: A few times in LEAD 365 we shared that uncertainty alone can trigger anxious responses in people. Listening well lets you gain insight into what information you need to share to take away some uncertainty. Communication is difficult. Time and again we believe that we have communicated clearly, but we’ve thrown a pass the other person didn’t catch.
  4. Gives you the information and time to make a wise decision about your next steps: Taking the time to listen to and understand different perspectives from multiple people allows you to better understand a situation and make wiser decisions about how to remedy what is going wrong. You have a much better chance of getting to the root cause of an issue when you take the time to listen.
  5. Builds trusting relationships: Being listened to makes people feel respected and valued. It shows that you care about them. Although listening takes a greater investment of time and energy than telling, listening builds the relationship in a way that simply happen if you always tell. Being listened to builds trust, which creates healthier individual and team relationships. When someone knows that you will listen to them and be respectful—even when you disagree—they are much more likely to come to you with their thoughts or concerns, allowing you to identify challenges and opportunities that you otherwise may have missed.
  6. Models behavior you want on your team: Do you want true collaboration on your team? Do you want your team members to stay calm when there’s lots of uncertainty and anxiety? Do you want your team members to show respect to each other and to be open to new ideas and feedback? That all requires listening to others. Your behavior is the strongest form of communication you have. You can tell people to listen, but it is much more likely to become part of your culture if you model what listening well looks like.
  7. Shows you where there might be a lack of clarity: Part of leadership is creating clarity around purpose, vision, and values. By checking in with people frequently and listening to them, you can identify areas where clarity is lacking and fill that gap.
  8. Helps you develop people on your team: Listening attentively lets you learn a great deal about a person’s DoKnowBe Tree, especially their Root System. You can learn what they love to do, what they’re struggling with, and how you can help them as a leader. Staying connected to team members and listening to them can also help you avoid the great temptation to overfunction. If you want people to grow, you need to challenge them. If you step in and overfunction, for whatever reason, you have just removed that growth opportunity. Listening can help you gauge what kinds of challenges your team members are ready for and where they might need some guidance. Asking some vulnerable questions and then listening well can help you identify your own overfunctioning in the system and change that behavior.

Great leaders take it a step further than just being willing to listen when someone comes to them; they carve out time specifically to ask questions and listen—in one-on-ones, meetings, presentations, and so on. They ask open-ended questions (questions that start with “what” or “how”). They actively seek people out to get their feedback. They understand that they have limited perspective. They are okay facilitating meetings instead of dictating them. They have the courage and humility to recognize that they don’t have all the answers, which makes some people feel vulnerable. Great leaders learn to listen, and the entire organization reaps the rewards.

I hope this post has stirred some things up in you about your own listening. What situations would benefit from you listening instead of telling? How can you create more opportunities to listen well? Next week we will look at the tool of feedback and all the different ways great leaders use feedback to achieve great results.

Lead on,

Image by John Beans. Used under CC by 2.0 license.