We’ve all got those vivid childhood memories that no matter how many years (or decades!) may pass still stick with us. Perhaps from a summer holiday, a particular birthday party, or in my case a moment from grade one in primary school.
It was a very warm afternoon, the fans were turned right up (we didn’t have air conditioning in classrooms yet), and we had been put into small groups at our tables to work on specific activities. My group had been assigned to make characters using potatoes and anything we could find from the arts and crafts box. Yes … this was literally one of the earliest versions of what is now the iconic Mr Potato Head franchise!
I remember laughing as my classmates and I started making crazy characters. There was glue everywhere, crepe paper getting stuck to the table, thumb tacks piercing cut out shapes into the potatoes. Come to think of it I really don’t think 7- and 8-year-old kids today would be given such free reign with drawing pins!
I’m sure we could all see the teacher standing next to our table and she was definitely trying to tell us something, but we all just carried on butchering our potatoes and laughing (somewhat) guiltily.
Then suddenly Mrs McIntyre reached down, grabbed a potato out of one of my friend’s hands and, looking furious, made her own creation. She crumpled up some crepe paper and glued one ball of paper on to each side of the potato, then got an orange peel out of the bin and pinned it on to the potato. She then drew on two eyes with black marker.
By now we were all staring at her.
She then blew her whistle (which she only ever did to get everyone’s attention!), held up her creation for the whole class to see, and shouted at the top her voice, “Just like this potato, you all have two ears and one mouth for a reason. You all really need to learn to listen twice as much as you speak”.
Fast forward 25 years and when I started training salespeople, I would often recount the Mrs McIntyre incident to reinforce the importance of listening during any sales or negotiation process. And as part of any leadership coaching programs I facilitate, Mr Potato Head (the Hasbro version!) also makes a regular appearance when it comes to highlighting the role of active and influential listening.
After all, for any leader, it’s about ensuring that every individual team member feels their voice is being heard.
Listening is without doubt one of the most essential skills for a leader.
Who are you listening to as a leader today? Not just hearing (as in voices talking at you), but listening to, understanding, being present for, and showing that you genuinely care? Are you actively listening to your employees? Your customers? Your advisors? Other key stakeholders?
Active listening and being present and truly engaged for those around you (whether it be in a professional or social setting) is a skill that doesn’t always come naturally simply because we can be so easily distracted. An educated adult can process language at 300 to 500 words per minute. However, most of us speak at closer to 100 words per minute. The extra brain capacity makes it difficult to stay focused, so the mind wanders.
Hearing what somebody is saying to you (ie the act of processing the 300 – 500 words per minute) certainly doesn’t mean that you are necessarily understanding what they are saying or showing any empathy towards the person talking to you.
How often have you caught yourself automatically (maybe even consciously) nodding your head or making one of your standard ‘acknowledgement sounds’ when you are fully aware that you had either stopped listening, or perhaps weren’t even listening properly at all in the first place?
Or, if you are speaking to them on the phone, are you also ‘just quickly’ checking your emails to stay on top of your in-box?
Active or influential listening can never involve multi-tasking – not even just the quick glance at a text message or email, or checking your calendar for what meetings are coming up after the one you’re in. These brief and seemingly meaningless actions simply reinforce to the person you are speaking to that you are more interested in what you are looking at than in what they are sharing with you. This is a sure way to lose respect and trust as a leader.
This is where a leader can really step up – by being completely present, probing, asking more questions, reinforcing that they are speaking to you in a safe space, and by connecting the dots when something doesn’t feel quite right.
One way to ensure this ‘presence’ is by maintaining eye contact. Where possible when speaking (and actively listening) to a team member, if you are not sitting together in the same room, try to connect via video chat. This will force you to maintain eye contact and be more engaged. If you think back to our ‘mascot’ Mr Potato Head, he doesn’t just have two ears and one mouth. He also has two eyes which, as strange at it may seem, help build rapport and trust for an influential listener.
It’s a natural tendency for many managers to try to provide the answers, to spoon feed, or to prevent a team member from making a mistake. This instinct typically leads to cutting them off mid-sentence to reinforce a point, perhaps disagreeing without letting them even make their recommendation, or nodding aggressively not so much in agreement, but in clearly wanting them to hurry up and get on with it.
Often a team member will approach their leader because they simply want a confidential sounding board, they want to be heard, to be respected, and to be recognised for making a positive contribution to the success of the team. The most impactful or persuasive thing a leader can then do is to implement what their team members are suggesting, and to follow through on any promises they have made following a conversation. If the team members feel that suggestions can’t be made, or if commitments aren’t met, then they will simply assume that their leader isn’t actively listening, isn’t present or engaged in any way, and therefore sadly isn’t interested in hearing what they have to say.
Having said that, it’s not enough for a leader to simply hear what their individual team members have to say. A leader needs to show empathy. A leader needs to be present. A leader needs to show how much they care. And the only way to genuinely demonstrate each of these traits is to actively listen.
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