I’m on a journey to become a better listener. This journey will make me a better leader, dad and partner/friend. For the most part, my listening skills are fine; this said, I am an enthusiastic talker who loves to fill silences with questions, anecdotes and one-liners. There is a connection between being just okay at listening and being just okay at staying super-focused on a task or idea. Here are five ways to achieve focus through listening that I am weaving into my leadership journey.
Listen with intention
My colleague, Jeff, and I recently chatted about the complexity of listening. To be honest, I thought that it was pretty straightforward: make eye contact, nod your head, affirm what was said by paraphrasing, and actively repeat what you’re hearing. As it turns out, listening and its potential to inspire leadership operates along a much bigger continuum than I ever imagined. Leadership guru, Otto Scharmer, argues that there are four levels of listening, which you can learn more about from the Presencing Institute.
Listening with intention means that, by the end of a conversation or after hearing someone’s story, I should be a different person. I should listen with such focus that I am changed. For me, this is a whole new kind of intention that combines empathy and discipline, especially when I’m tempted by opportunities to talk!
Drop the distractions
Something that I really need to change is my love of distractions. Entrepreneur’s Nadia Goodman informs me that one of the many reasons that I like having 20 windows open on two screens while I text my wife, write three emails, and review a budget is because such behaviour tricks my brain into thinking that I’m accomplishing a lot. The thing is that multi-tasking actually drops my IQ and opens me up to all kinds of failures that could range from spelling errors to flying off the handle towards a colleague. Ultimately, operating amidst distraction is bad for business and my wellbeing.
Simple changes like not bringing my phone to meetings, turning off my email for big chunks of the day, and actively listening during conference calls (instead of being someone in this video) are examples of more focused listening and engagement.
Listen with an open heart
“Observe, observe, observe: suspend your voices of judgment and cynicism and connect with your sense of appreciation and wonder,” says Scharmer. According to guys like Scharmer and others who write about leadership, we don’t listen enough. Managers and executives are wired to take command and give directions as opposed to listening deeply and empathizing with people so as to really understand what’s going on.
Something that has always resonated with me is Stephen Covey’s “seek first to understand” principle, which requires the listener to “get inside another person’s frame of reference” and stand in their shoes. Building on this idea, listening with empathy helps to focus on another human being’s perspective and not just my own.
Let the silence breathe
“It’s an apt descriptor that literary types attach to silence: pregnant, in that it is laden with potential and sure as hell uncomfortable,” says Fast Company’s Drake Baer. Not talking during silences is an excruciating experience for me because I am a guy who is probably in the top 1% of extroverts on the planet and who always has something to say.
The thing is that most of what I have to say isn’t important or relevant to everyone in the room and probably isn’t what’s needed to move along a conversation in a way that makes it more meaningful. After all, silences are often laden with potential, as Baer rightfully acknowledged, and letting them expand – as painful as it might be – can actually bring focus to a particular problem or challenge. Embracing moments of silence can inspire deeper, richer and more vulnerable conversations, too.
Listen with the future in mind
When awesome focus is achieved through listening we are connecting to what Scharmer calls, “the highest future possibility that can emerge.” For multi-tasking talkers like me this means that I am feeling the same pinball-like-stimulation and sense of accomplishment that I get from balancing six things from one deeply connective conversation. Ideas and solutions that I would never consider emerge because I am behaving like a finely tuned receiver that can sense what wants to be communicated by my conversation partner(s). Through deep focus on one person countless more ideas can be generated than by clicking from screen to screen or writing emails while pretending to engage in a conference call.
This is kind of listening is aspirational – if not unrealistically-monk-like – for me and I know that my journey to become a better listener might never bring me to a generative listening place. The experience will absolutely bring more focus to my work and give my voice a bit of a needed rest, too.