What do Douglas Baker Jr., CEO of Ecolab, Fred Rogers (Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood), and former US President Barack Obama have in common?
Doug Baker became CEO of Ecolab in 2004. At the time, the 80+year old company was selling industrial cleansers and food safety services to the tune of $3.8 billion annual revenue, with 10% annual growth. In 2011, Baker transformed the company which resulted in $12 billion annual revenue.
Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers, cared deeply about those on the other side of the television screen—their needs, concerns, struggles and joys. He was an advocate for children, public television, and a voice for the unheard.
Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009 to 2019. Prior to that, he served as a US senator, a state senator, worked as a civil rights attorney, law professor, and community organizer for low-income residents. In a recent conversation at the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific program he spoke about his experiences and values-based leadership.
So what do these three leaders have in common? They point to listening as the key to forward progress. After listening to clients, Baker refocused their efforts to help save the planet and attained 133% of their projected growth. Rogers listened to children, changed the face of television, and transformed the lives of young children. Obama spent countless hours listening to others, inspiring trust, pulling people together, and improving innumerable lives.
Although the art of listening is frequently the difference between leadership success and failure, it is often taken for granted, and rarely taught in schools—at any level. We have an urgent need for leadership development in the art of listening.
How Well are You Listening?
“Listening well has been found to distinguish the best managers, teachers, and leaders.” ~ Psychologist Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2007)
The art of listening is essential for leaders. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that we spend 22% of our time reading communications, 23% talking to others, and 55% listening. But how well are we hearing?
Test yourself with this simple exercise, suggested by Marshall Goldsmith in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Hachette Books, 2007): Close your eyes. Slowly count to 50 with a concentrated focus on counting only; don’t let any other thought enter your brain.
Most people admit that after counting to 20 or 30 they become distracted. (Some maintain the count, but are also thinking of other things.) While this may sound like a concentration test, it’s actually a listening assessment. After all, if you can’t listen to your own voice as you count, how can you listen to someone else?
Practice this listening exercise. Track your progress. By sharpening your ability to focus on your own voice, you’ll find that you are better able to focus attention on another.
Why We Aren’t Listening
Mastering the art of listening is beneficial to everyone. It allows leaders to identify opportunities, innovate, and increase profitability. It strengthens relationships, builds better teams, and bridges gaps. So why aren’t we listening?
The human brain is a remarkable, complex system with enormous power to process information through electrical signals. Like a computer (or artificial intelligence), it has circuits for input, output, central processing (CPUs), and memory. The human brain also uses parallel processing, and, according to Liqun Luo, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, has “superior flexibility, generalizability, and learning capability than the state-of-the-art computer.”
On average, the human brain thinks at 500 words per minute (Wpm). However, we only speak at an average of 130 Wpm. This frees up a lot of CPUs when we are listening, and we begin to multi-task.
Emotional distractions also create a lack of presence and inability to listen. These include:
- Resentment and envy
- Fear and feeling threatened
- Fatigue and frustration
- Overexcitement (happiness, joy, attraction)
- Insecurities and/or a need to be “right”
When we think we already know what someone is going to say, we often stop listening, and begin crafting a solution and response. When this happens, we move away from a place of curiosity, a keystone of listening.
Similarly, our limited perspective can interfere with our listening. When we think we know what someone is going to say, or hear something that contradicts what we think or feel, we stop listening. We fail to acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know. We hold on to bias, beliefs, and pre-conceived notions.
Often times, leaders who struggle in the art of listening are simply struggling with their own perceived inability to act on suggestions and ideas. As a result, they shut down the flow of ideas and requests, and move to a defensive position where they do all the talking. Sure, they may empathize (and emphasize) how much they care, but they are not listening.
What is the Art of Listening?
As counter-intuitive as it may appear, the art of listening actually begins with self-awareness. Self-aware people understand what motivates them and their decision-making. They recognize their feelings (as they happen) and how they affect their thoughts. They understand their strengths and weaknesses. Self-aware people understand their proclivity to bias and blindspots.
How? In an HBR article, Anthony K. Tjan writes that the trinity of self-awareness is to, “know thyself, improve thyself, and complement thyself.” Self- aware leaders are active truth-seekers who commit to intellectual honesty and surround themselves with different types of people who understand and complement each other. Individually and collectively, they develop social intelligence.
Honing the skills of awareness requires mindfulness—becoming aware of what’s going on inside and around you on several levels. In its simplest form, mindful meditation is an intentional awareness of being, focusing on the breath. If, or rather, when a thought occurs, the person simply acknowledges the thought without judgement, and returns to a focus on the breath. The practice leads to living in a state of full, conscious awareness of one’s whole self, of other people, and the context in which we live and work. It provides a framework for social awareness.
According to Goleman, social awareness is a spectrum that runs from instantaneously sensing another’s inner state, to understanding their feelings and thoughts, and to “getting” complicated socials situations. Goleman describes it as:
- “Primal empathy: Feeling with others; sensing non-verbal emotional signals.
- Attunement: Listening with full receptivity; attuning to a person.
- Empathic accuracy: Understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
- Social cognition: Knowing how the social world works.”
Whether they agree or disagree with what they are hearing, reading, or seeing, leaders who excel in the art of listening are fully receptive to the person communicating. They use active listening to signal their attunement. Self-aware listeners facilitate rapport with full, sustained presence, going beyond momentary empathy, similar to what they practice in mindfulness.
How Leaders Can Listen Better
Humans learn to sift and sort at any early age. We learn coping methods to drown out distracting movements and sounds. In the process, we often develop the habit of selective listening. As a result, we often miss important cues, or even direct communication. While the art of listening is not taught in traditional MBA programs, leaders can learn to listen better by taking a few tips from the training therapists receive.
Be curious. Curiosity allows us to think more deeply, rationally, and innovatively. Curious leaders gain more trust and respect, and are better able to adapt in uncertain conditions and external pressures. As a leader, how do you strengthen your curiosity? How often do you:
- Read a wide range of topics, genres, and authors
- Consult with others
- Explore without an agenda—i.e. take a trip, a walk, a visit to brick and mortar book store
- Ask “dumb” questions
- Learn something new—i.e. memorize new facts, learn a new game/language/musical instrument
- Deepen your existing knowledge and expertise
- Ponder the unknowable
Practice active listening. As a leader, one of the most important things we do for those we lead is to listen. And while we may think we’re paying full attention, we may be sending a message that we’re not. Instead, practice active listening without judgement:
- Stop what you are doing. This is perhaps the most important, and loudest signal you can give to the other person. If you are walking, stop. Turn to face the other person squarely. If you are seated and holding something, put it down, and if possible, away from your reach, and face the other person squarely. If you are not able to fully participate, or have limited time and attention, let them know, and, schedule a time and place when you can.
- As the other person is speaking, pay attention to their non-verbal language—their tone, body language, and gestures—as well as the details of what they are saying. As appropriate, mirror their actions (make eye contact, smile, lean in, relax your face, etc.).
- Ask for clarification, or elaboration, without interrupting them as they speak. To do this well, without manipulating the conversation with your own bias, agenda, preconceptions, or motives, takes practice. Allow for silence as someone searches for words or composure by maintaining eye contact and using appropriate facial expressions. Ask open-ended questions that can not be answered with “yes” or “no”. If you do need specific clarification, ask close-ended questions.
- Paraphrase what you think you heard, verbally and non-verbally. Include what you perceive to be their feelings, emotions, beliefs, thoughts, suggestions, ideas, requests, etc. Include details, as well as the big picture. Acknowledge what you don’t understand, or know.
- Don’t rush to solutions, or fixes. Be patient, but not passive. And remember, the goal is not to critique what they say, rather, it is simply to hear and understand. Resist any urge to empathize by topping the story with your own similar, but worse, experience.
- Communicate what your next step or follow-up will be.
Establish guidelines for team and group meetings. The art of listening is critical for team success. Leaders who remove barriers, set standards, and model behavior increase meeting efficiencies and productivity.
- Request that distractions be minimized or eliminated (i.e. cell phones off, doors closed, etc.).
- State your objective at the beginning of the meeting.
- Appoint a facilitator to keep track of time and focus.
- Appoint a note-taker to paraphrase and track main points, assignments, deadlines, status, and next-steps.
- Encourage everyone to face the speaker as much as possible (turn chairs in the appropriate direction.)
- When ideas are presented, resist the urge to interrupt or critique, and encourage the same behavior from everyone.
- Discourage side conversations. Ask participants to have their conversation at another time.
- Take your own notes of what the speaker is saying.
Model the art of listening with self-awareness, attentiveness to the speaker, and listening to understand.
Signs of a Poor Listener
People who are poor listeners are generally not difficult to spot. They are often easily distracted, fail to focus on the present, offer plenty of free advice, minimize the feelings of others, and are quick to fill any silence with their own ideas.
Colleagues, co-workers, and even clients label poor listeners. Have you seen these types in the workplace?
- Headhunter listener: this type of listener is looking to identify others in their tribe; that is to say, if your ideas align with theirs, or what they believe is “the truth.” While they may have good intentions, they are frequently looking for ways to restate their position, rather than listen.
- Negator: this type of listener believes everyone else is wrong. They create barriers, often hiding behind closed doors, lack of time, and other priorities. Resentful of others for their attempt at intrusion, they negate all ideas.
- Manipulator: perhaps the most cunning of poor listeners is the manipulator, who skillfully steers conversations to their desired outcome. Their questions are leading, slanted, or rhetorical, leaving others to wonder what just happened.
- Phila-buster: this type of listener is also known as a wind-bag. Any thinking they do is done externally, or outloud, and they use repetition or gas-lighting to try and prove their point.
- Fixer: the fixer listener is a people-pleaser, quick on the draw to offer solutions. They seek to impress, and often make recommendations before assistance is sought, or problems are fully identified.
- Faker: this type of listener is a great actor, who often uses pseudo-empathy to mask their disinterest or closed-mind.
When co-workers don’t listen at work, it can often feel like bad improv comedy. Collaboration becomes impossible when conversations are one-sided. Unfortunately, the stakes are often much greater, and the consequences far more reaching.
How Teams Can Listen Better with Improv
Individuals and teams can practice the art of listening with a few techniques from improv comedy. The game is called Questions Only, where participants are challenged to move the dialog forward without hesitation, statements, or non-sequiturs, asking original questions only. Some versions of the game use scoring, but typically it is done with a group of four (or more), and when a mistake is made, another person steps in. The key to staying in the game is to listen well.
Poor listeners rarely move a dialog forward. Instead, they miss cues and opportunities. But great listeners focus on others, remain flexible, and listen carefully. They collaborate and support each other.
Listening well will help you strengthen relationships, increase your knowledge, make better decisions, and improve your creativity. It can make all the difference in your success. How are your skills in the art of listening?