Tuesday, 17 January 2012

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Great leaders are great listeners

We have discussed a couple of good qualities of an effective leader in my previous columns from time to time. Today my topic will be good listening. Good listening is an essential part of being a good leader. You cannot be a good leader unless you are a good listener. You as a leader must be very aware of the feedback you are receiving from the people around you. If you are not a good listener, your future as a leader will be short.


A good leader is always a good listener

I have come across quite a few leaders of this caliber in my working life. In certain organizations, people have named certain top chairs as burning chairs. They say whoever sit on these chairs are having a short life due to their inability to listen to others. May be it is a myth thinking. But this is how people have interpreted it.

I might add that being a good listener is a skill important in many other settings. For example, being a good listener will enhance your social relationships of all types, marriage, dating, parties, work, etc.

A good leader is a good listener. A good listener may be or may not be a leader. But a good listener is usually popular which an important step in becoming a leader is. People like to be around someone who listens well.

You and I can improve our listening habits. It will take concentration and hard work. Our listening habits are the results of years of often-unconscious behaviour. Do we maintain eye contact? Do we really work at listening?

Over the past several months, I interviewed half-dozen well-known business leaders just to find out how effective leaders they are. One observation I made is great leaders are great listeners. Extraordinary men and women solicit feedback, listen to opinions and act on that intelligence. Listening skills have always been important in the workplace, but are even more so when dealing with young employees. Unlike in the traditional days, today's employee wants to be asked for feedback and he or she wants to be heard.

Good listening includes a package of skills, which requires knowledge of technique and practice very similar to good writing or good speaking. Many people believe that good listening skills are easy to learn or automatically part of every person's personality. Neither is correct. The difference is that poor listening skills are often not as obvious to other people. If we cannot speak effectively, it is immediately obvious, but it may take a little time for other people to become aware that you or I are poor listeners.

Poor listening habits are very common. Indeed, poor listening skills are more common than poor speaking skills. I am sure that you have seen on many occasions, two or more people talking to each other at the same time. This is a very common scene you can see when the politicians are the listeners.

When they talk while others are listening, nobody is trying to stop them talking because of the power they do have. This is other way around when you take a great leader like Bill Clinton. The following is the extract I made from a certain article written by an American writer.

"The other week I asked a newspaper reporter who he considered the most inspiring person he had ever met. He answered Bill Clinton without hesitation. When I asked him why, this reporter told me he had met Clinton after the former President gave a speech in South Africa. According to the reporter, "Clinton looked me in the eyes and seemed to have a genuine interest in what I was saying. His gaze never left me. He made me feel like the most important person in the room at the time, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates was standing right next to us!"

People cannot talk and be an effective listener at the same instance. What is not so obvious is when you and I are only paying partial attention or do not fully understand. There are some games that we use in the training room and elsewhere in which we start some information through a line of people. Each one passes the information to the next.

The end result is usually very different than what was started. Some of the differences are the result of poor listening skills.

Good listening skills will vary from one communications situation to the next. For example, what is effective feedback will vary from one person to another? Some people to whom you are listening may need more feedback than other people.

Listening skills can always be improved. Perfection in listening, just as in other communications skills, does not exist. In communicating the responses we make as leaders, to other people's statements can have an empowering or diminishing effect.

Telling the person or group what to do, trying to sell the person or group on our point of view, or telling the person what their feelings or motivations are, take away the other person's sense of autonomy, self-reliance and equality. Not only at the training room, even at home, you have to be an effective listener to your spouse as the leader of the house. If you do not listen to the spouse, your family life will be a very short one. Disputes will start generating at home unless you become a good listener to each other.

Here are some of the kinds of statements that have an empowering effect.

Active listening: being responsive to what the person says. Asking for more information: showing interest by asking the person to elaborate on what he or she has said

Paraphrasing: telling the other person what you think he/she meant in order to make sure that the message he/she intended to send was the one you received.

Checking your assumptions about the person's feelings: making sure the person is feeling the emotions you think.

Sharing information to help the other person understand your point of view: telling the other person information that helped you form your opinion.

Reporting your own feelings: telling the other person what your emotional state is.

Offering alternatives: suggesting other courses of action as possibilities for the other person to assess. Many managers talk about being good listeners, yet this skill often remains an area in need of substantial improvement. The benefits of good listening are numerous. Relationships improve, productivity and work performance are enhanced, team spirit is fostered, morale increases, and your staff gains better perspective and understanding of your mission as a leader of an organization. Good listening skills engender trust. And trust is what separates effective participatory leaders from autocratic managers.

If you are listening effectively, the odds are that your subordinate is talking 80% of the time, and you are talking only 20% of the time. When you speak, you ask short, simple questions that draw the person out. What's more, you ask questions in a concerned, nonthreatening style and tone. Good listeners let their subordinates vent when necessary and acknowledge their feelings.

It is critical that the listener stay open and no defensive, conveying genuine concern, no matter what the staff member says. Maintain the attitude that this person is your teammate and wants to improve things. Learn all you possibly can from your teammates so you are able to address their concerns effectively. Demonstrating your concern by helping team members resolve problems to their satisfaction not only strengthens the unit, it also provides flexibility for you when problems that are beyond your control arise. Past successes build trust, so your teammates are much more likely to listen to you and be reasonable when a problem exceeds your authority.

In addition, there are some special attributes with regard to good listening. If you need to become a leader, please read through these attributes and try to follow them.

1. Attention. Attention may be defined as the visual portion of concentration on the leader. Through eye contact (see below) and other body language, we communicate to the leader that we are paying close attention to his or her messages. All the time we are reading the verbal and nonverbal cues from the leader, the leader is reading ours. What messages are we sending out? If we lean forward a little and focus our eyes on the person, the message is we are paying close attention.

2. Eye contact. Good eye contact is essential for several reasons: First, by maintaining eye contact, some of the competing visual inputs are eliminated.

You are not as likely to be distracted from the person talking to you. Second, most of us have learned to read lips, often unconsciously, and the lip reading helps us to understand verbal messages.

Third, much of many messages are in non-verbal form and by watching the eyes and face of a person we pick up clues as to the content. A squinting of the eyes may indicate close attention.

A slight nod indicates understanding or agreement. Most English language messages can have several meanings depending upon voice inflection, voice modulation, facial expression, etc. Finally, our eye contact with the speaker is feedback concerning the message: Yes, I am listening, I am paying attention. I hear you.

Remember: a person's face, mouth, eyes, hands and body all help to communicate to you. No other part of the body is as expressive as the head.

3. Receptive body language. Certain body postures and movements are culturally interpreted with specific meanings. The crossing of arms and legs is perceived to mean a closing of the mind and attention.

The nodding of the head vertically is interpreted as agreement or assent. (It is worth noting that nonverbal clues such as these vary from culture to culture just as the spoken language does.) If seated, the leaning forward with the upper body communicates attention. Standing or seated, the maintenance of an appropriate distance is important. Too close and we appear to be pushy or aggressive and too far and we are seen as cold.

4. Understanding of communication symbols. A good command of the spoken language is essential in good listening.

Meaning must be imputed to the words. For all common words in the English language there are numerous meanings.

The three-letter word, "run" has more than one hundred different uses. You as the listener must concentrate on the context of the usage in order to correctly understand the message.

The spoken portion of the language is only a fraction of the message.

Voice inflection, body language and other symbols send messages also. Thus, a considerable knowledge of nonverbal language is important in good listening.

5. Objective We should be open to the message the other person is sending. It is very difficult to be completely open because each of us is strongly biased by the weight of our past experiences. We give meaning to the messages based upon what we have been taught the words and symbols mean by our parents, our peers and our teachers.

Talk to someone from a different culture and watch how they give meaning to words. Or another listening challenge is to listen open and objectively to a person with very different political or religious beliefs. Can you do that? Really? It is wonderful if you can, but relatively few people can listen, understand and appreciate such messages which are very different from their own. If you cannot, it is time to start because as a leader you will need to understand a wide range of opinions on often-controversial subjects.

6. Empathy - not sympathy. Empathy is the "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another...." Sympathy is "having common feelings..."(Merrian Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition) In other words as a good listener you need to be able to understand the other person, you do not have to become like them.

Try to put yourself in the speaker's position so that you can see what he or she is trying to get at.

7. Strategic pauses. Pauses can be used very effectively in listening. For example, a pause at some points in the feedback can be used to signal that you are carefully considering the message that you are "thinking" about what was just said.

8. Do not interject. There is a great temptation at many times for the listener to jump in and say in essence: "isn't this really what you meant to say."

This carries the message: "I can say it better than you can," which stifles any further messages from the speaker. Often, this process may degenerate into a game of one-upmanship in which each person tries to outdo the other and very little communication occurs.

9. Leave the channel open. A good listener always leaves open the possibility of additional messages. A brief question or a nod will often encourage additional communications.

10. You cannot listen while you are talking. This is very obvious, but very frequently overlooked or ignored. An important question is why are you talking: to gain attention to yourself? Or to communicate a message?

Summary:

Remember, we hear only what we want to hear and remember only part of what we heard. Good listening can improve both the content and quality of what we hear and remember.

"We are given two ears, but only one mouth. This is because God knew that listening was twice as hard as talking."

Today is the day to start developing those good listening habits and you will become an effective and very popular leader.


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