By Nick Morgan
Leadership communication always needs to be a two-way activity. Leaders, to be blunt, need followers, and a smart leader wants to know what those followers are thinking and doing. Moreover, leaders are in the business of persuasion, and you need to be listening to the people being persuaded or you won’t know how you’re doing.
There’s an even deeper reason that you need to be in the listening business as a leader. I believe that it’s the responsibility of a leader to return the courtesy of your followers by making an equivalent effort to listen as hard to them as they do to you. It’s courteous and it’s right — and it’s necessary in the long run if you’re going to fulfill the leader’s full set of obligations.
Good listening, then, is a profound activity. People need to be heard to be validated as human. We’re a social species.
Increasingly, though, listening is a forgotten skill. No wonder — we’re constantly awash in information. Why should we voluntarily listen any more? There’s simply too much to take in. And yet, listening to the people close to you — your team, your company, your sphere of influence — is more important than ever. Here’s how to do it well.
At its most basic, listening offers feedback. Feedback, which is often critical, is simply a response, usually involving evaluation of some kind. Many leaders, in fact, consider (critical) feedback the beginning and end of their job communicating to their followers. I worked with one CEO who believed that it was enough to tell his executive team when they had screwed up. “They have a job to do; they’re paid a salary. Why should I praise them?”
I finally persuaded him to broaden his communications palate for the purely transactional reason that it would get him better results. He was dragged kicking and screaming into a more enlightened version of communication, but he wasn’t thrilled about it. It seemed like work to him.
Nonetheless feedback both good and critical is an essential part of listening. Here’s how to do it without destroying the ego of the receiver and ultimately the relationship.
Begin by describing the actions of the person to whom you’re giving feedback: “You completed the task on Tuesday.” If your purpose is critical, relate the action to the standard: “It was due on Monday.” Then describe the consequences of the behavior, and the reasons for them: “Being a day late leads to bottlenecks at the plant and will cost us forty-five thousand dollars each time. We can’t afford that kind of cost and stay in business.”
Then make your request: “I need you to complete the task on time in the future.” Finally, check for comprehension and agreement: “Do you understand? Can you commit to getting the task completed by Monday from now on?”
The key is to avoid all the tempting analyses and speculations on the motivation of the receiver. “You always turn your project in late! Are you deliberately trying to sabotage us? Do you want to screw us? Are you trying to bring the organization down? Are you drinking again?”
These sorts of communications, satisfying as they may be, crowd the channel with emotional baggage that ultimately gets in the way of persuasion. It’s difficult, but don’t tell the person that he or she is bad. Instead, stick to the facts and the consequences.
So it‘s possible to give feedback well, both the good and bad variety. But if you want your audience to feel that it has been heard, feedback isn’t really enough. Too often, it feels punitive, despite your best efforts, and it certainly feels like it’s judgmental.
To up the ante on good listening, here are a couple of other ways to listen that will let your audience know that it has truly been heard.
To go a little further as a good listener, try paraphrasing what your audience is saying. This activity is surprisingly difficult for the poor listeners of the world. For the rest of us, it’s easy enough if we can swallow the temptation to give our own opinions. Paraphrasing means simply saying something like, “So let me be sure I’ve understood. What you’re saying is that the green ones are tastier than the brown ones?”
The point is to play back, like a recorder, what the person has said to you. That’s all. Resist the temptation to embroider (“But that’s ridiculous! That can’t be true!”); that will undo all the good work of the paraphrase.
Paraphrasing is a powerful technique because it gets your receiver agreeing with you. He or she nods and says, “Yes, that’s correct. That’s what I said.” From that simple agreement, you can build a persuasive relationship because you’ve begun to create trust and liking. It’s impossible to hate or distrust completely someone whom you’ve just agreed with, especially in the act of replaying your wise words back to you.
Finally, let’s take the listening game higher. The most powerful form of listening — the one that people most strongly react to, feeling that they are both heard and understood — is a form of empathic listening where you identify the emotion and state its underlying causes without trying to solve the problem: “So, Bill, what I hear you saying is that you’re angry with me because I haven’t fully appreciated the lengths you’ve gone to in trying to win over our Latin American customers. Those efforts have caused you a lot of sleepless nights, time away from the family, and marital problems. Is that right?”
Don’t try to solve the problem at this stage. Just acknowledge it fully, and you will be surprised at how powerful that acknowledgment is for the other person. The key elements are the correct identification of the emotion; the reasons for it, including your own personal responsibility, if any; and a full statement of the facts of the situation if those haven’t been brought up openly before.
This form of active listening — active because you’re acknowledging your own role in the situation — is the hardest to undertake. In a contentious situation, it can feel as if you’re giving in to openly express how the other is feeling. But you’re not; you’re just stating the other’s position as fully and honestly as you can. Agreement, compromise, or resolution will come later. For now, active listening is a powerful first step toward solving any serious problem in a communication.
What you will find is that if you’ve done it well, people will agree profoundly and powerfully with you. Of course, to accomplish this form of listening effectively, you must be good at reading the emotions of others, and those come chiefly from the nonverbal conversation. What you’re doing is translating the nonverbal into the verbal, and that is an important skill for any leader to employ with wishes to have a full set of tools for persuasive communications.
About the Author:
Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and coaches. In his blog he covers modern communications from a variety of angles, including the latest developments in communication research, the basic principles and rules of good communication, and the good and bad speakers of the day. His passion is to connect the latest brain research with timeless insights into persuasive speaking in order to further our understanding of how people connect with one another. For more information on his company, visit www.publicwords.com