Someone much wiser than me once said “You have two ears and one mouth… So you should do twice as much listening as you do talking.” As an extrovert I found that challenging for a long time. I love talking to people, and I’ve said that sentence a lot over the years. Interestingly, I never phrased it “I love listening to people”. Inspired by Barry’s leadership development programme I’ve spent the last few years immersing myself in all kinds of leadership material, eager to build my knowledge following my initial ‘This just makes sense’ moment from reading Lead Like Mary and working through the content of Barry’s leadership course. The more I opened up the world of leadership, the more I realised I’d be doing it all wrong so long. I’m naturally so eager to talk to people, to share my views, to contribute, that I’d often overlooked the need to listen.

I now view a lot of leadership skills as similar to fitness. You have to continually work at the elements involved. If you practice them, they become habitual, easier to incorporate into your life, and you see the results. But if you lose focus, and stop practicing them, it’s possible (it certainly is for me) for your skills to fade. Just like someone who likes jogging will see their fitness improve over time by going running several times a week. If they stop running over time their fitness will fade.

In Chapter 7 of Lead Like Mary, Barry explains the importance of not listening for the right to reply, but seeking first to understand – empathetic listening. Let’s explore those two approaches in a little more detail.

I’m sure even the most effective leaders still find this first element challenging. I know I have multiple times each day when I’m in a conversation with someone and I’ve already thought about what I want to say next. In a lot of conversations it just seems to be how my brain works, but recently I’ve been really challenging that. I’ve tried to become really self aware in key situations that I need to understand the person and in order to do that I need to clear my mind of what I might say in response. I’ve been practicing this (under the radar without actually saying it) in all kinds of situations, with my family, friends and people at work. The results are incredible. It’s the foundation for some many other elements of effective leadership. It empowers the other person to come up with their own solutions, it enables you create freedom within a framework and not solve the problem yourself, it helps you to create joint accountability by encouraging the other person to identify what they are going to do and then later agreeing how you can support them. It also helps to build relationships. You find out more during a discussion that you would do if you were sharing all of your views, often discovering more about the person or unveiling the real issues which need to be addressed.

By inviting the other person to speak and then encouraging them to expand, coaching yourself not to interject with a question or your point of view that may break their natural flow discussion you open up a new world of insight. The next part of the process is seeking to understand the information you’re presented with. Whether you’re practicing the leadership role at work or in a personal relationship this bit is really important. It took me about 25 years of my life to really understand that everyone saw the world differently. Prior to that I naively assumed that the way I understood things and thought about stuff was the same as everyone. You should never underestimate how
differently other people view the world and that’s why seeking first to understand is so important.

A really powerful approach to this that Barry explains well is clarifying what the other person has said. So, first you empathetically listen, encouraging more information and for the person to expand on what they’re saying. Then,
when they have said everything they needed to you, you check your understanding of what they’ve said. I follow Barry’s advice of replaying what you heard back to them, or attempting to summarise the key elements involved. It’s amazing how often this leads to the person reframing what they’ve said to make it more specific, which then helps you both understand the situation.

In making them feel heard and clarifying the specifics you play a key role in building their confidence and helping them to develop. It helps you to understand exactly what the situation is and in many cases over the last year or so has helped me to avoid doing the wrong thing. Sometimes enthusiasm and well meaning intentions get the better of me and I have to reflect on how I could have listened more empathetically in that situation. But we’re all human and leadership is as much about self development as it is about supporting others to thrive.

Have a go at practicing empathetic listening. Don’t be too hard on yourself if your natural instinct kicks in and you slip into listening for the right to reply. Remember, leadership is like fitness and you’ve got to keep working at it.

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