One of the keys to business execution success is the art of generous listening. It is core skill for business leaders to master if you want to be able to influence and align your people. As Stephen R. Covey said, “First seek to understand, then to be understood.” Your influence will only reach to the extent you’ve paid attention, and have been seen to pay attention. If you’ve been through the “active listening” course you know that those techniques are fine. But merely restating to confirm understanding will only take you so far.
To be a successful business leader, I’d like to encourage you to do more. I’d like to invite you to be a generous, respectful, and calm listener. To listen deeply and get clarity.
Generous listening is the assumption of favourable intent. It means if somebody says something that can be taken in more than one way, they meant the good way. We assume their motivation is favourable.
This can be difficult, especially if we’re in a crucial or critical conversation that affects our status, autonomy, or relationships. For example, the mere act of having a conversation with your boss can feel threatening to your status.
If the conversation has any emotional implications whatsoever, then email is the worst form of communication. With no body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions to guide us the possibility of misunderstanding goes up exponentially. With today’s video-conferencing capabilities, there’s no excuse to not at least video-conference.
When these feelings happen we can recognize them, take a deep breath, and re-evaluate the situation with the assumption of good intentions. Not always easy to do, but at least we’ll be able to hear more clearly.
To be generous:
Try to assume good intentions on their part, especially when the conversation feels threatening.
Pause and recognize your own feelings before responding.
Talk face-to-face whenever possible.
Is it safe for someone to tell you bad news or give unfavourable feedback? Can you handle the truth? Listening means being vulnerable sometimes. Putting yourself out there. Exposing yourself to things that might even be hard to hear or feel threatening.
Can you be compassionate and understand that the other person might be feeling vulnerable too?
Can you take a moment in the conversation to feel what they’re feeling?
To be calm:
Try to see things from their point of view, even if you don’t agree.
Your silence does not mean you agree with what is being said. Interrupting, however, doesn’t show disagreement. It signals disrespect.
People sometimes take a while to get to their point. They need to feel safe before they can get to what they really want to say This is one that I personally struggle with, especially when I’m actively, emotionally or intellectually, engaged in a conversation or idea.
Don’t worry about having an immediate response ready the moment they take a breath. Having an immediate response ready the moment they stop talking is just another form of interrupting. Take a breath before you reply.
To be respectful:
Take a breath before you respond.
I sometimes have a hard time even hearing what’s being said, or staying focused. My mind will drift off, or I’m trying to keep track of all the things I want to say in return, or I’m trying to figure out what their intentions and motivations are.
This is not listening. This is waiting to respond, and it shows.
A tactic that I learned only a few years ago but works for me: Repeat the words they are saying to yourself in your head. This will get you back on track, and keeps you focused on what they’re really trying to say.
To listen deeply and stay focused:
Repeat their words in your head.
Listen to understand, not to respond.
We cannot know what is written on somebody’s heart. yet we continually make assumptions based on our observations of their behaviour filtered through our perception of the world.
It’s important to clarify instead of assume. To ask questions instead of judging. This is the part of active listening that we can take deeper than merely parroting back words. We’re not just trying to show the other person that we heard their words. We need to confirm our understanding to really hear what they’re saying.
To clarify and gain deep understanding:
Ask open-ended questions.
Squash as many of your own assumptions as you can.
Who can you practice the art of generous listening with today?