Listening to Lead

Almost every day, I watch people fail to absorb really important information from their colleagues or from their customers, clients and patients. I’m talking about in real time, IRL face-to-face conversations, not other communication messes like misinterpreting emails or being on mute by accident on a conference call.

Last week in a meeting, a normally generous and always thoughtful and smart woman interrupted her boss twice when we were discussing the best way to recruit people to our improvement leadership program. She interrupted her boss while the boss was responding to her direct question. Reflexively, I reached out my hand toward the non-listener, like Stop, in the name of love. I got my inner Diana Ross under control before anyone noticed, which was good because I didn’t want to add a new interruption or call my colleague out in the middle of the meeting. I couldn’t help the reaching hand. It was an involuntary way to say, Shush, now, just listen. You asked a good question, now listen to the answer.

This is someone with whom I have a coaching relationship, so when it was just we two later, I said: “What did you hear her saying about the project plan?”

She said, “She thinks it won’t work.”

Not only was this black and white interpretation not what I heard, it was also not a helpful interpretation. What can you do with a blanket “it won’t work”? Blow it all up and start over? Kill the project altogether?

We went over my notes and talked about the smart guidance I got from the boss. We discussed how to adjust the recruitment plan to use this smart guidance. We would have had more to work with, if the non-listener had listened and asked for more. But this was something. With a third wheel in their discussion, a note-taker who was able to save some of what is lost when people don’t listen, we rescued some good info. And now the project lead can follow up and listen and explore what the boss has to offer.

We all do this. We don’t listen because we are in too much of a hurry. We have some other place to be. Often just another meeting where we are also moving too fast to listen effectively. Or we don’t listen because we are so convinced that our idea or our opinion is perfect the way it is, and we just want to get on with it, so other people’s opinions or objections are just in the way. We label people a Resister or Hater. It’s a common affliction, this assumption that people mean us and our ideas harm, or don’t want to play along. Resist this affliction.

Want a prescription to help you slow down and listen more completely?

Try this and call me in the morning: 3 deep breaths, 30mg of Curiosity and 100mg of Humility. And smile. Take every time you are in too much of a hurry or feeling too right about everything to listen.

Or do you like a little mantra every now and then?

How about: “I don’t have all the answers. I can’t see every angle. I need other people’s ideas, even ones I don’t like, to grow as a leader and create beautiful successes.”

Like setting goals?

“In every meeting I attend, I will learn at least one thing that can improve my work.”

Like a little quiz?

Here’s one with another story based on real life:

Your job is to get more people into your agency for healthy cooking classes, and to help those classes lead to better daily eating habits for your clients.

You have a great idea that you share in a meeting: Target specific blocks of the neighborhood with door-to-door outreach to invite people to the cooking classes, then do follow-up by phone and texting. You found a free customer relationship management app to track all these people and to encourage class attendance. You ask for volunteers to help you launch this strategy, and get … nothing. Crickets.

Your great idea could die today. So you ask, “Any questions or concerns?”

Cynthia says, “I don’t think that’s a good use of staff time.”

You launch into a long explanation of why it won’t require more than 1 hour a week for a few staff, even though you can’t know that yet, because you need to Shut. This. Down. and save your idea.


Quiz question, multiple choice:

Cynthia said what she did because she is …

a)     Jealous you got to lead the project. She doesn’t want you to succeed.

b)     Worried that even more work will fall on her and her team.

c)      Remembering the last time the agency tried something like this. It didn't work.

d)     Excited about her own idea for tracking and encouraging clients.

e)     Tired of projects that never lead to lasting changes or results.

f)       Tired, period. She has a big family crisis going on at home this week.

g)     All of the above, or none of the above, or a combination of the above. There is no way to know why Cynthia said what she did because I didn’t listen.

You know what the correct answer is, right? Great work!

In summary, effective listening is harder than it seems and requires practice and a thick skin. It is worth trying to do better, for our own success and learning, and also for productive and fun work relationships.

Final note: How does listening fit into getting your good ideas to take off? As I hope you agree by now, it’s crucial. See Listening in the context of other communication and idea development tips in this previous article