Leadership these days is a tough ask.
Increasingly leaders are asked to be brave, vulnerable, and empathic, along with displaying the technical and subject matter expertise expected of them. Oh, and there’s the small matter of navigating the current uncertain environment.
Let’s not pretend it’s easy, or that a checklist or shiny new leadership model suddenly, magically, makes things better.
We would argue though, that in today’s knowledge economy, there is one thing that makes a pivotal difference for leaders, and in fact for anyone. It builds trust, commitment and Psychological Safety, which is a recipe for standout performance.
We’re talking about listening.
It’s harder than it sounds. We’ll break it down first into some smaller blocks, and then build a picture of how it fits together, followed by two key aspects of listening and the benefits they bring.
What you’re listening to, or how language works
When speaking, we start with a thought, which becomes motor (movement) activity of our mouth, tongue etc, with which we form sounds.
Listening is the reverse.
We hear a finite number of sounds called phonemes. English has 44. We build these phonemes into basic meaning units (morphemes) which we construct into lexemes (at its simplest, a word and its variants). Under the rules of syntax, lexemes become sentences.
The final, but crucial, element in all languages is context, which helps us all more accurately understand meaning. A finite number of sounds becomes an infinite number of meanings.
As a native speaker you largely put these building blocks and rules together without too much thought, having learned how to do it from childhood, even if you can’t describe how it works.
(For example, you’re probably excellent at putting adjectives in the right order. You’d say “A big yellow coat” but not “A yellow big coat”. Size always comes before colour, even if you didn’t know that it did.)
As a listener, you’ll notice repetition, stumbles, figures of speech and the like which will give you a clue as to importance and emphasis, along with other vocal cues.
Listening is a give and take
The purpose of communication is, unsurprisingly, to share information, from which we take meaning.
When people give you feedback, or ask a question, they’re conveying meaning. When they raise their eyebrow or smirk in a meeting, they’re conveying meaning. When they come to you with a problem and want advice, or guidance, or to just offload, it’s the same.
What’s conveyed and what’s understood, though, are frequently different. Communication is more than just the sounds of language and the propositions we make. The speaker has intent to get you to do something, or to change your mind in some way.
For you as a listener, the challenge is to take the same meaning from the exchange as the speaker gives, and look to understand their intent.
You’ve no doubt had experience of misunderstandings in communication, as speaker or listener. It’s sometimes disturbingly easy to get it wrong.
How you put it together
There’s the bottom up information that enters your awareness as sound waves via the hearing structures in your outer then inner ears, then through your cochlea where the sound is transformed to neural impulses to register in the auditory areas of your brain. Conveniently, these are located by your ears, in your temporal lobes.
But of course you have to integrate it as speech, not just sound, and then infer meaning from it, which involves a number of top down cognitive processes including attention, comprehension, working memory, and episodic and semantic memory.
It’s blindingly fast.
We speak at least 120 words per minute. In full flight, President John F Kennedy would deliver 300. That’s five per second. That you can understand him means you’re decoding the words as fast as you hear them; one per 200 milliseconds.
Further, you then have to join this with what you see. There may also be smell such as nervous sweat and touch like someone squeezing your hand. You’ve probably heard that only some of what we mean is conveyed in the actual words. Much is conveyed in non-verbal aspects.
Actually about 55% of emotional content is non-verbal. We communicate this by expressions, gestures, posture and so forth. Another 38% is transmitted by tone of voice. That leaves a mere 7% for the words themselves.
Simultaneously, you predict what you think you’ll hear based on context, which looks forward in time, and integrate what you’ve already heard, which looks backwards in time. It’s a remarkable skill.
Collectively, this full multimodal, multisensory effort called listening is much more complicated and effortful than simply hearing.
Getting on the same wavelength
When we get it right, good communication generates a particular signature.
That is, both the speaker’s and the listener’s brains show the same response pattern, with the listener’s lagging by a few seconds. The lag is the time it takes for the full meaning of the sentence or idea to be communicated.
This ‘joint, temporally coupled, response pattern’* decreases when communication is poor or breaks down.
Conversely, the more extensive the coupling is, the better the communication is. If you’re really listening, and extracting the right meaning, your neural response more accurately mirrors theirs, in real time.
Call it the same wavelength, or being in sync, or that someone just ‘gets you’, we can measure how well you as a listener understand what you’re hearing.
Two ‘tips’ you may have heard
You may have heard or read how we’re supposed to listen, if we’re ‘doing it properly’.
First, nod your head encouragingly, and also say “Mmmm” and “Uh huh” periodically. These responses are called ‘minimal encouragers’. Yes, they’re good.
The truth is, though, that you can do these pretty reflexively, without paying too much attention, especially if you’re on the phone.
You may recall being in a conversation you weren’t interested in, while the other person kept talking. All that’s required to encourage them to keep talking is the occasional “Uh huh”, “Yep” or “Mmmm” and they keep talking while you keep scrolling through memes.
Second, ask lots of questions.
Questions are fantastic. So is knowing how to ask a good one.
Assuming you’re asking open rather than closed questions, check what your intent is.
If you’re asking questions to pry, interrogate, or to prove a point, a question can easily become a weapon, not a tool. Your intent is about you, rather than them.
Minimal encouragers and questions are great, when done well, with the right intent, and as part of a wider listening context. All of your listener behaviour (including your body language, a conversation for another day) must be sincere.
And there are two critical ways listeners can engage: attention and curiosity.
At any point in time, attention is a limited resource and, when we’re listening, there are a number of ways our attention can be divided. When it’s divided, we’re less effective. (To be accurate, it’s not so much divided between two (or more!) things, but switching rapidly between them. Neither task is completed well.)
Given how multimodal good listening is, focused attention is critical. Divided attention is detrimental. And as a leader, so much hinges on what we do with our people.
You’ve probably had experience of how it feels when someone isn’t listening to you because their attention is taken with something else.
Similarly, the person speaking to you will know when your attention isn’t on them. Their trust in you decreases, and their sense of Psychological Safety decreases too. You’re obviously not interested in them, so they may cut the conversation short, not reveal what they intended, tell lies, demur, and so forth.
You may miss, or not be given, crucial information.
So you need to remove distraction. Phones have been shown to be such a distraction, merely by being face down on the table. Turn it off, and put it away. Close the door. Face away from windows if necessary. Turn off other possible notifications. Use headphones on Zoom if there’s other noise. Make sure others know you’re busy so you won’t be interrupted.
If you’re someone who has an internal monologue this is a competing demand for your attention. You need to ignore your own internal chatter, thoughts and general noise, in order to devote your attention to listening to the other person.
Similarly, the temptation to formulate a response, including arguments, proving your expertise, developing advice and solutions, while the other person talks, takes you away from their words and non-verbal communication. You’re more likely to miss information, nuance and tone.
Any personal criticism you may have of the person, their opinions, decisions, actions, and circumstances, takes up attention and competes with your ability to listen. That, too, must sit to the side. If it’s important to you, make a mental note and process it later; just not now.
Further, you may notice that you generate our own emotional response in reaction to them. Maybe what they’re saying reminds you when you experienced something similar, or perhaps you react to their circumstance as an observer. Maybe you feel envious, angry or sad. Do your feelings help or hinder your ability to listen, and their sense that you’re someone they feel comfortable talking with? Typically, best to park your feelings for later reflection.
The second key factor is curiosity.
If you read a novel, hear a joke, or watch a movie, you’re usually asked to suspend disbelief while you let the story unfold. You accept things to be true or real in the context of what you’re engaging with, even if they turn out to be different later. You’re asked to enter another world and you reserve judgment while you see what happens.
A good listener does the same.
Yes, your brain is busy making predictions but you’re not attending to what it might be doing. Instead, curiosity allows you to direct that attention to the full breadth of the conversation in every aspect there is.
A curious listener wonders more about the conversation, doesn’t assume they know where it will go, and puts aside any preconceptions. They’re inquisitive about what it will tell them.
Your questions are guided by interest and curiosity rather than agendas and power dynamics. They’re thoughtful, and thought-provoking, which shows you’ve understood what the speaker is saying, have thought about it, and want to probe a little more.
Questions that acknowledge what’s been said, and then look to extend them, are often called ‘Yes. And’ questions. The follow up questions facilitate a deeper conversation,
Your questions and comments may simply reflect the content, “So what you’re saying is…?” or they may reflect the feeling that’s underpinning the content, “It sounds like this really excited/upset/irritated you…”.
This invites a response by reflecting what you notice and allowing the speaker to confirm or amend what they said. Either way, it gives the speaker more options, and assures them you’re listening.
As a bonus, clarifying like this allows you to overcome biases you may have and assumptions you may be making, even if you think you aren’t. It also demonstrates humility as you’re checking you heard right, rather than assuming you know what they’re saying.
You might also ask: “What else is there?”, “Tell me more” and “What was that like?” to give them room to develop their thoughts.
As a leader there are significant benefits in being a good listener.
Curiosity enhances social relationships. It improves trust even between complete strangers, and to a degree that surprises even curious listeners. As a leader, curiosity allows you access to different and original thinking, divergent views and alternate arguments. This is powerful information.
Listening builds trust which facilitates Psychological Safety. When people learn that you listen well, be it when someone pitches an idea outside their role, or comes to you with a personal issue, or whatever it is, they learn that you’re a safe pair of hands. Basic reinforcement tells you they’re more likely to come to you in future.
Additionally, it develops an inquiry and learning approach which also contributes to Psychological Safety. Personal contributions, effort, innovation and performance follow.
Undivided attention sends a clear message that people are important to you, which carries a high premium with employees.
This soft skill generates hard, bottom line outcomes.