TALKING POINT 3:
Listening to Lead
I have the auditory equivalence of a photographic memory. I remember pretty much everything that people say to me. Imagine living with that – poor Lexie!
As a result, I have to be quite selective around what I choose to listen to and the level of conversation and depth I have in my day-to-day life.
I slept very little as a child, because I would replay conversations in my head, searching for meaning and insights. Seeing the world through these filters means that at times I speak when I should listen and at others times I listen when I should have spoken up. A previous Talking Point, Tongue Fu, explains the Tell, Show, Ask balance when giving advice as a leader.
I think listening is pretty poorly done across all fields, and the advice on listening is fairly light weight. One of my pet peeves is the proselytising of Active listening, a process wherein I engage in repeating your last word in a sentence and deliver that word with a tone of enquiry.
— Enquiry? Yeh, you know, an upwards inflection to create the illusion of a question.
— Question? Yeh, like I said it’s a process designed to make me do the talking.
— Mmm Talking? Yeh, sharing my opinion in words, sound, wind, vocal chords etc.
— Mmm Etc?
I’m not a big fan of that.
I think that leaders who listen well realise it's so much more than simply active and passive listening. Let's call it deep listening: not just listening to what someone says, but leading through listening.
For the last decade or more leader-as-coach has been advanced as a leadership capability. Leader-as-coach has increased empowerment and driven higher engagement and productivity in business. This has been a necessary part of the shift from command-and-control ‘TELL’ leadership styles to a more empowered flattening of organisations designed to drive ownership and engagement. It might be time to take that skill, the art of listening, a little deeper. Time to explore how we can listen to create an effect.
The wonderful Jane Anderson introduced me to this interview of entrepreneur Bill Liao.
Passive and Active listening … doesn’t allow for the intention of getting a specific outcome from the conversation.
It got me thinking around the fact that we might actually have many different types of listening. The breakdown between Passive listening, wherein I am actually waiting for my turn to talk, and Active listening, the rabbiting effect mentioned above, may not be the most useful way to look at listening. Passive and Active listening essentially deal only with turn-taking, with making sure that you give the other person adequate time to communicate their thoughts. But this makes no reference to the purpose of your listening. It doesn’t allow for the intention of getting a specific outcome from the conversation.
This Talking Point explores different listening approaches. Like all Talking Points I hope it's a conversation starter.
The model begins with a North, South, East, West framework.
This is a detached form of listening. It's about listening above the stuff. The intent is searching for patterns and it's about asking the question 'What’s this really about?'
This echoes the science of pattern recognition and mosaic thinking.
This is an empathic form of listening. It's about experiencing deeply the world of another. It has a deeply compassionate intent – 'I am them' – asking the question 'If I put myself in their shoes, how does that feel?'
This echoes the Buddhist idea of interbeing.
For a great explanation of how to do intentional listening, have a look at this video by John Wineland and Guru Jagat. They walk through an intentional dialogue, and explain why it is so important to develop this skill.
This is a very directed form of listening and possibly the most dangerous form of listening. It's about sorting through what someone says with a pre-determined filter firmly in place. Is about finding evidence to back up a hypothesis. It has the intent of 'looking for evidence' and asks the question 'What's really going on here?'
This echoes the forensic nature of a detective with a theory searching for evidence.
Possibly the hardest type of listening there is, this about the listener considering that they may be wrong. It’s about the listener dropping internal walls and lowering their defences. It must be bold, as it questions the very heart of the listener’s self image. It has an intent of 'you may be right' and answers the question 'What if what I know to be true, is not?'
This echoes the idea of 360 degree feedback and conscious/unconscious competence.
Deep listening has the potential to delight in the unknown and introduce new insights.
This is like a magnetic field and is the combination of all these listening types and more. While the five core listening types are purposeful, like heading out in an adventure to discover something specific, deep listening is about exploring. It's bigger and has less boundaries. It has the potential to delight in the unknown and introduce new insights. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said "The mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensional." Deep listening bends the mind. Oscar Trimboli, one of the country’s leading thinkers in this topic and a brilliant leadership coach, says:
"Listening as an act of discovery helps you focus on the process, the content and the other person. With an intention of exploration, the impact is wider and deeper. It creates new spaces for insight and learning for you and for them."
I am really looking forward to reading Oscar Trimboli’s upcoming book, Deep Listening, on understanding listening as an exploration of possibility rather than a discovery of a predetermined intent.
In the intersections of the various types of listening are our intents, our goals if you like. These four quadrants and the centre help you achieve a leadership outcome by turning up one or the other boundary compass points. Listening to lead is an intuitive process of adapting to three forces: what is said, how it's being said, and what you – as the leader – determine needs to be achieved. Don’t just listen, listen deeply.
If your intent is to activate something in the person you are leading then be surgical and look for what is blocking or causing a resistance to change. Do this well and the conversation becomes transformative.
If your intent is to educate then listen for gaps in knowledge and serve the person you are leading by giving them the right information at the right moment in the right way. Do this well and you develop a role as mentor/advisor, building the capabilities of those you lead.
If you are aware that what is required is some strong personal validation then be relational, understanding the other person and expressing what you love about who they are and what they do. Do this well and the people you lead are respected, loyal and genuinely connected to your best interests.
If your goal is to calibrate the relationship and get it back on course then approach the listening with a healing approach. If done well there should be a complete reformation in how you work with the person you are leading.
If you have a custodial goal around holding a space for a bigger future, or helping create the best version of someone you may be listening to, then your approach should be 'listening to potentiality', asking the question 'How can we create a new reality in this discussion?' This echoes the idea of leading the witness in legal fields, in so far as you have a clue as to where the conversation could go, and the ontological work of many self-help gurus, in that you are holding the space as a listener to manifest something.
The bottom line is, if you want your conversations to be as effective and meaningful as possible, make your listening intentional. Go into the conversation knowing which type of listening you’re doing, and move around the framework as necessary.