Here’s a guarantee. While listening to someone else, every leader has said this at some point, if not out loud then at least in their heads:
“Yeah… sure… I know… Now, what did you want to tell me?”
Most of the time it’s unconscious. It’s not that we don’t care or that we’re all secretly aggressive communicators waiting to say our part. Usually it’s just that we have other priorities running through our minds. Our own internal narrative is filtering the words of others into two compartments: what we think is helpful to know and what we believe is not.
Listening is one of the fundamental capacities of a leader. It’s not simply a case of ticking off the active vs. passive listening problem. We have to recognise that listening is the background structure of interpretation that gives meaning to what we perceive.
Before we can achieve more through listening, we have to understand what is already affecting us.
Our context is decisive. If we don’t appreciate what is contributing to our own understanding and perception, we will operate on our default setting. This robs our decisions of intentionality. But to untune from our own perspective, we have to see it for what it is.
Every experience you’ve had, right up until the point where you started reading this article, is playing into your perception. Even in your reading of these words, your past experience is adding its own interpretation. In some ways that’s helpful, because otherwise we might believe everything we hear.
But this filter system has its limitations. Because we all listen to the same words differently, it can lead to severe communication gaps. And unless we acknowledge that our internal wiring isn’t always accurate, we won’t be able to listen beyond our own perception.
Listening can be an act that generates ideas, enthusiasm and awareness in others. This is what we call generous listening - and it is a powerful leadership skill.
Generous listening is only possible when we’re not operating on default. Only once we see our filters for what they are can we begin to cross the chasms of understanding that exist between us.
Awareness alone isn’t enough though. You also need to be committed to the people you’re listening to. If we’re waiting for others to earn our trust, our perception will stay firmly within our own echo chamber.
Once we’re committed and aware, we can listen in a committed way. We’re no longer listening in service to our own perspective. We’re able to give our attention to the people in front of us and help them problem-solve the challenges they’re facing.
These ‘already listening’ and ‘generous listening’ dynamics also play out on an organisational scale.
Some leaders, if they’re looking to create change in their company, might start drawing up plans on a blank page. They sometimes use another company’s structure as a reference point - and riff on that until they’ve created a solution to the problems they perceive.
The next thing they know, they’re laying out their grand plans to their teams and wham! They get smacked in the face by feedback they didn’t see coming. The plan dies on the spot or it doesn’t get the uptake and it slowly fizzles out.
Here’s the issue: leaders need to be present to the organisation they’ve got. You can’t work in isolation. But if you’re attuned to your own organisation, you can allow the macro elements of the company to inform your re-structures and refine your ideas.
Of course, it’s not about parking your expertise and just doing what everyone else in the company wants. There’s a balancing act here, one that requires quite a bit of skill to get right. Pull it off though, and your co-creation will make something better than you could have imagined yourself.
Check out how we help organisation leave siloed thinking behind or get in touch to explore how we can help you ignite your ambitions.
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