“The single most significant strategic strength that an organization can have is not a good strategic plan but a commitment to strategic listening on the part of every member of the organization.” – Tom Peters
Those are some pretty strong words. I think we all know listening is important, but are we treating it as Peters says, “the bedrock of leadership excellence,” and thus giving it the attention it deserves? Are we truly being effective listeners?
Peters has a list of Good Listener’s Rules, here are five of my favorites (you can find them all in Chapter 13 of The Excellence Dividend):
- A good listener exists totally for the given conversation. There is nothing else on earth of any importance to me for those (five, ten, thirty) minutes.
- To borrow from Susan Scott: Listening success = FIERCE ATTENTIVENESS.
- Keeps her or his f-ing mouth shut.
- A good listener gives the other person time to stumble toward clarity without interruption.
- A good listener becomes INVISIBLE; makes the respondent the centerpiece.
Now think about some of your most recent conversations - with employees, with stakeholders, with clients. How many of these rules did you follow?
Me? I wouldn’t get a passing grade!
I’m guessing some of you might say you are pretty good listeners in some situations and not others. If we are striving for excellence, then we need to work on fierce and aggressive listening to both staff and outside stakeholders.
How can we improve? Peters would tell us it isn’t about getting better at listening. “The point is to unabashedly make listening the centerpiece of your existence.”
It takes making a conscious commitment to listening. Here are some great ways to start:
- Don’t be an 18 second boss. Peters cites research from How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, that shows on average doctors listen to a patient describe their symptoms and interrupt after only 18 seconds. This is something many of us fall victim to. An individual comes to us, starts to explain their problem, and we interrupt with our solution before even hearing the entire story. Rather, we need to try and focus on what the other party is saying instead of starting to formulate our response. I challenge you to take the opportunity to ask, “What do you think?” – and give the other party a chance to respond.
- Take notes. A significant portion of Richard Branson’s book The Virgin Way: How to Listen, Learn, Laugh, and Lead focuses on listening. He considers note-taking the key to effective listening. It forces you to pay attention. It shows the other person that you are taking them seriously. And Peters adds: “Note-taking also forcibly keeps you from spending your listening time preparing your clever, self-serving retort. If you are ‘listening’ and in your mind preparing your response, then, duh, you aren’t listening!”
- Be present. Admittedly, this is one I struggle with. Put down your phone, iPad, or laptop and BE PRESENT in the conversation. How can you make listening the centerpiece of your existence if you are on your phone? You can’t. Multi-tasking doesn’t work. And it conveys a lack of importance to the person speaking with you.
What’s The Risk?
Listening is the ultimate mark of respect. Without it, we put our relationships – with employees, clients, friends, and family – at risk. If we don’t respect others by listening, how can we expect to be shown respect in return? And if someone doesn’t feel significant and listened to, then how can we expect them to make significant contributions?
There is power in listening first and speaking second. As Will Rogers said, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”