Many leaders don't know how to listen

Although most people think they are good listeners, in practice it often turns out differently. And we would even dare to say that listening is one of the least developed qualities among many leaders. How do you make a difference as a leader?

Low employee engagement is often related to the inability of leaders to meet the needs of others. And an organization's ability to successfully navigate today's complexity is related to the level of curiosity of their leaders. Aspects that all have to do with listening.

As organizations continue to discover how best to respond to COVID-19, we also see how important it is for leaders to be empathetic, service-oriented and vulnerable. Likewise traits that support us to really listen.

What is it that makes people listen so poorly?

In our opinion, this has to do with it because of the way we talk about listening and, in particular, about "active listening.

The concept of "active listening" was coined by Carl Rogers, a therapist who also worked with organizations. He used the adjective 'active' alongside creative, sensitive, accurate, empathic and open-minded to describe a form of listening in which the listener fully understands and appreciates the speaker's emotions. The listener is simultaneously able to set aside own perspective and is open and transparent about own thoughts and feelings. Moreover, the listener accepts the speaker as he or she is and is able to enter the other person's world "unbiased.

Active listening is complex. However, Rogers' meaning of it-and the complexity of active listening-is lost in subsequent statements of what it means to actively listen.

The complexity of active listening

If we search for the term "active listening" on Google, many definitions we come across are transactional in nature because they are simplified from Rogers' original.

An example:

"... active listening is, above all, not complex.
Listeners need only repeat in their own impression and language of the verbal and nonverbal communication of the other..."

To simplify listening in this way is to practice being quiet, repeating back to the speaker what was said, nodding, leaning forward and so on.

However, this behavior of the listener puts the focus on the listener themselves (being able to give good feedback on what was said) and suppresses an essential part of active listening; being curious. Being curious about what is not being said.

What is not said

The power of "active listening" is that we listen to what the other person is NOT saying. In doing so, we create awareness, learning and growth! And above all, we see the speaker become autonomous again. Autonomy is one of the three primary needs of an employee in an organization, next to being competent and the need for social contact.

Autonomous:an independent individual who has the need to make his own choices within the framework of an organization. This increases ownership and thus commitment to the organization.

What gets in the way of that listening?

There are many aspects that get in the way of listening. Lack of time, a belief that we are responsible for finding solutions to the problems of others, a belief that it is our job to give advice. In short, we get in the way of ourselves! Our own opinions, ideas, prejudices, background, inclinations and impulses, they all get in the way.

It is unlikely that we will become a good listener just by looking at the tips and techniques that contemporary proponents of active listening recommend. Remaining silent, nodding, leaning forward, summarizing what you heard; probably none of these behaviors by themselves lead to greater empathy.

If you want to become a better listener as a leader, self-awareness is essential. To what extent do you understand your ever-present inner voices? The voices that tell you that you already know what the other person is trying to say. Or the impatient voices. And what about all the preconceptions you bring to a conversation before the conversation has even started. They all play a role in how successful you can be as a leader.

Approach as a way of BEING

By approaching listening as "a way of being," leaders can allow their employees to bring out the best in themselves.

We often see this reflected in:

  • An improved sense of general well-being
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Self-Awareness
  • Clear communication
  • Work satisfaction
  • Involvement

And ultimately, a leader's listening skills will positively impact team performance.

Approach as a way of BEING

The world is becoming increasingly complex and change is accelerating. More than ever, it is important that we learn to be truly active listeners as Rogers intended. To be an "active listener" is to be both self-aware and purposeful. That journey to greater self-awareness and clear purpose requires more than learning new skills. It requires an ongoing commitment to learning and self-reflection; learning about ourselves and the impact we have on ourselves and others. This is an ongoing process, not a short burst of learning during a webinar or workshop.

Source: Johan van Bavel | January 8th, 2021 |

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