What does it mean to be a “good listener”?
Ideally, it means that you are present for the other person, hearing and acknowledging both what they are saying as well as the emotion behind it.
The better we become at listening to both the words and the subtext (emotion behind the words), the easier it is for us to resolve differences, redirect upset employees and build better connections.
When we look at the research on leadership and resonance that has been recorded by Daniel Goleman over the years, and when we look at the current studies done on brain behavior (Siegel, Medina, Sacks), we begin to see this powerful see saw effect between emotion and analysis going on in our minds. That is to say that the emotional centers of the brain (often referred to as the “reptilian” parts of our brain) operate on basic emotional urges while our executive function areas (pre-frontal lobe) deal with logic, organization and analysis. When we become hooked emotionally our executive functions shut down and we begin to respond only with that “reptilian” part of our brain.
(Read: the part that thinks its a good idea to quit your job because they changed your meeting time without telling you.)
Note: this is my super-basic layman’s explanation. For more details, read their books.
What does this have to do with listening? Simple. If you are in a leadership position, then you are probably dealing with people in stressful situations. Stress causes the emotional centers of the brain to go on heightened alert, which then shuts down our ability to think clearly. We know, however, that empathetic listening can lower that heightened state and pull the person back into focus. This type of mindful listening is like granting the person permission to step back from the edge of the cliff, thus allowing them to calmly assess their situation.
How to do this?
Awareness: First you have to become adept at listening for the emotion in the other person’s voice. A lot of times we become inured to the emotions in other people’s voices and wind up reacting to them without knowing it. If you can become more skilled at detection then you will not find yourself getting hooked as often. This is also true for our own emotions. The more aware we are about what hooks us emotionally (threats to our authority, financial insecurity, making a mistake) the easier it is for us to interrupt those thoughts and stay focused on the other person.
Curiosity: Be curious about what is going on for them. This is perhaps the most powerful tool that leaders can use when trying to listen. Curiosity is different than just having a list of questions. Listen for what is going on for the other person and seek understanding. This is where assumptions can get in the way of good listening. If I think that I know what this person is saying before they say it, then it is hard to be curious. Being open and being genuinely interested in the other person will increase your trustworthiness and make you a more empathetic listener.
Acknowledge their reality: “This program doesn’t work.” “I can’t work with this team.” “I need more money for my budget.” Whatever the statement (usually flooded with emotion), it is easy to dismiss it immediately. Maybe you know that the program isn’t the problem, or that the team isn’t the issue. Maybe you know that the answer to “I need more money” is an immediate no. Even so, if your goal is to build trust and defuse the situation, then it helps to acknowledge what seems real to them. “Sounds like the program isn’t doing what you expected it to do, what’s up?” “Sounds like you are struggling with your team, what’s up?” Name what they are saying without admitting that it is a universal truth. Following with “what’s up” or some variation of that invites them to tell you more about it. It might even open the door to a bigger issue that is going on for them.
There is more to say about this, and I will come back to it frequently. Listening is skill that can be learned and which will make any leader or manager instantly more trustworthy within the organization.