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Is listening the central competence for effective leadership?

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"You" maps and feeling felt - ideas from Dr. D. Siegel

“You” maps and feeling felt – ideas from Dr. D. Siegel

Most of us have little insight into how well our listening skills are performing in our working relationships. And yet research is showing that effectiveness in the workplace hinges partly on an overlooked ability to actively (consciously) listen. And research goes even further to say, success at work and in leading teams depends on a particular form of listening, empathetic listening.
Recently Karen Bachmann, Perficient Digital Research Director, and I co-presented on the topic of improving listening skills and awareness during a workshop hosted by amUX in Atlanta. She shared the obvious and nuanced differences between listening and hearing, along with some of the barriers that affect listening. I spoke about the importance of attuned communication (i.e., conscious listening), the doorway to empathetic listening and development of meaningful working relationships.
Empathetic listening: the gateway to building human capability
Karen kicked off the workshop with a quote from Greek Philosopher Zeno of Citium, “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” To fully understand and explore this idea, first know that you and I have a habit of hearing, essentially taking input, a passive mechanism of the ear. Hearing is not the same as listening. Listening is an active, conscious and selective skill that can be practiced and consequently improved. As Bachmann mentioned to the audience at Polygon Atlanta, it starts with understanding the differences between hearing and listening:

Mechanism of the ear
A sense
Perceiving sound
Continuous and pervasive
Ears are only one input
A skill
Making meaning from sound
Conscious and selective

What is even more noteworthy is that active listening engages all the senses to help us understand a speaker’s message. Consider that sight is critical to listening because observation of non-verbal cues can tell us a lot about a person’s intent and the meaning in their words. In an earlier post I wrote, “MIT Professor Alex Pentland discovered during extensive research on team members…that “face-to-face interaction is far richer and more effective than digital versions.” Pentland also concluded that unspoken social signals told them “all they needed to know about the performance of a group.” This is great news, but active empathetic listening is complicated because we are dependent on using mediated communication (i.e., chat clients and email). We cannot gauge body language. Even still it’s possible to harness the benefits of observation. Take for example using video for the initial start of your meetings to build rapport and improve comprehension of the speaker’s message. Also, Bachmann suggested “visual listening.” Create an image of the speaker in your mind to build affinity and understanding. And my favorite has always been take notes. Note taking supports listening through touch, and this increases retention and comprehension of a speaker’s story.
You-maps and feeling “felt”
Not surprisingly the heart plays an important role in enhancing listening skill. And along with the mind, it helps you to recognize another’s “felt” presence. During the workshop I shared how the practice of “attuned communication” creates “you-maps that enable you to sense the internal mental stance of another person, and to see from another’s point of view,” a definition of empathy from Dr. Dan Siegel. By consciously tuning into the speaker, listening becomes a gateway to “build empathy” with another and it’s “an active practice of empathy,” according to Bachmann. It might be considered out of step in the workplace, however practicing empathetic listening is essential. In my own experience it helps me have the right stance to tackle tough problems and harmonize relationships.
To my knowledge, empathetic listening is a workplace skill that receives modest attention in workforce development. However, this type of listening skill has extensible benefits. For one, empathetic listening is a solid foundation for enhancing other listening types, from listening to learn and evaluate, to listening to create connection (i.e., rapport listening). Pause now and think of a time when you could have handled a situation with a colleague or client more successfully. Ask yourself, did you give the other speaker silence and attention, or did you allow distractions and your own priorities to get in the way of the gift of listening? As Bachmann pointed out, when you shift your listening position you “reshape the listening you’ve created” so that you can receive and appreciate (aka, responsiveness) the speaker’s words with deeper understanding.
Empathetic listening is essential for successful leadership. Christine M. Riordan, Provost and professor of management at the University of Kentucky, has found that, “Study after study has shown that listening is critical to leadership effectiveness.” In her article for Harvard Business Review, Riordan learned that most leaders are not good at empathic listening, “…leaders seek to take command, direct conversations, talk too much, or worry about what they will say next in defense or rebuttal.” Her research aligns with Bachmann’s in that smart and sensitive people pay attention to nonverbal cues, and take in information through all their senses. This idea contains an important truth attributed to another author and speaker, Simon Sinek, who has said that, “Listening is more than simply being quiet and waiting for your turn to speak.” Ah, wise words!
The connection between empathy and listening is real. When we truly understand the intent of messages (receive), keep track of the points in the conversation (appreciate and ask), and bother to summarize those key points (summarize), we are empathetic; and, it’s what Bachmann referred to as RASA.
Receive: a posture of listening

A presentation to amUX Atlanta Dec 2015

A presentation to amUX Atlanta Dec 2015

Appreciate: responsiveness (“uh-huh”)
Summarize: “So”, a collection and recap of ideas
Ask: Question to show attention
There will always be challenges to adopting an empathetic listening stance. I mentioned to the audience that it’s tough to be an empathic and engaged listener during times when your ideas and recommendations are criticized, or when you are in a new environment that makes you uneasy. However, these situations can be overcome with the willingness to listen with caring and concern. I agree with Riordan, “Hearing words is not adequate; the leader truly needs to work at understanding the position and perspective of the others involved in the conversation.”
During the last segment of the workshop we conducted a simple listening exercise. I asked attendees to pair up, one speaker and one listener. As the speaker told a story that expressed how he/she handled a new situation, the listener took notes, paid attention to the story, especially noting any emotions expressed through body language that may not have meshed with the story. Each listener noted if he/she was adding to the story, or thinking and waiting to speak, rather than listening. We gave pairs the opportunity to switch and explore the listener’s role. At the end we opened it to Q&A where the early morning crowd expressed renewed interest in improving their awareness and skills. A colleague confessed to me that, “Frankly my listening skills are better now than in my 20’s, but I’m still not as good as I could be.”
Consider a final thought about empathetic listening taken from Riordan’s article, a quote from Paul Bennett, the Chief Creative Officer at IDEO, the design consultancy that has done work for clients from Samsung to GE:
“…for most of my twenties I assumed that the world was more interested in me than I was in it, so I spent most of my time talking, usually in a quite uninformed way, about whatever I thought, rushing to be clever, thinking about what I was going to say to someone rather than listening to what they were saying to me.” 
Last note
During the workshop Karen pointed to a handful of techniques to improve listening skill. One that stood out is the notion of a “created listening” defined by Julian Treasure, sound consultant. I encourage you to check it out. For more ideas see our deck on amUX.

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Lisa McMichael

Lisa McMichael is a Senior Manager Digital Accessibility, CPACC with the Detroit Business Unit.

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