The doctor puts the stethoscope on the patient’s chest, and starts listening through the earpieces. She can hear the blood pumping in the heart, and the air moving through the lungs. These sounds are very vital to her, as they tell her “what’s going on” with her patient. Is all well, or is the patient unwell? And, if he is unwell, then these sounds help her diagnose the reason behind it. When the doctor is listening to these sounds, she is focused only on them. In those moments of listening, there is nothing else that is competing for her attention.
There may be a useful prescription for leaders here - the practice of stethoscopic or deep listening. It can be defined as:
“Listening with complete attention, by being fully present to the individual with you”
It means listening to the spoken and the unspoken, to the gushes and the pauses, to the voice of reason, as well as the voice of emotion.
A leader’s ability to manage people depends upon his understanding of them. He needs to have a good grasp of how the individual is wired – his desires, fears, passions, strengths, weaknesses, hot buttons and idiosyncrasies. Deep listening is an excellent way to develop this understanding. Plus, when a leader listens well, he demonstrates care and respect for his team. People who are respected and cared for, feel a deep commitment, and are willing to put their best foot forward to deliver results. Their productivity is much higher than people who feel disengaged, and are merely complying with the rules.
Just how easy is it to listen this way? In reality, it’s quite a tough task to listen so deeply. Firstly, there are all the external disturbances of a connected world – phones, laptops, social media pings and meetings. Even when one consciously shuts these off, there is the loud clamour of internal chatter – a leader’s inner world of fears and anxieties. This noise is even more difficult to turn off. But, the benefits of being a good listener are so substantial, that it’s worthwhile for a leader to hone his listening skills.
First, ensure that YOU feel heard
It’s not easy to feed someone when you are starving yourself!
It’s lonely at the top, and many leaders may not have “safe” spaces where they can pour themselves out, without fear of judgment or worries about someone misusing the information to harm them. It’s important to give yourself permission to be a “mere mortal”, who has normal, human needs to share his fears, anxieties, passions and desires. It’s not necessary to wear the leader hat all the time, and finding this “safe” space for yourself is important to your emotional stability, which directly impacts your effectiveness as a leader.
Often, it is possible to find this “safe” space with colleagues, friends, spouse or relatives. But, there are complex political and social stakes in these relationships, and a leader may not always feel comfortable sharing his vulnerabilities. In that case, it helps to tap professionals – coaches or mentors who can help with this.
The key point is to recognize, as well as accept your own need to feel heard. Focus time and energy on it as a part of your self-care routine.
The multitasking mindset
Imagine this: You have scheduled a meeting with your manager, where you are explaining a difficult issue that needs his support. As you are speaking, the manager starts replying to messages on his phone. What do you feel? What thoughts are running through your mind?
Maybe, around the lines of “I need your time and attention for my concern”. “My concern is also important”. “I had reserved this time with you for my concern, but you are using it for something else”. This can make you feel quite discouraged and disengaged.
Now, flip this situation. You are the manager who is replying to messages while you had promised this time to a team member. You are simply contributing to the discouragement and disengagement in your team. One may not think of this as severely as breaking a promise, but in reality it is. When you give your time to someone for a one-to-one meeting, you are making a promise of being “fully present” during that time.
In their defense, leaders might give the following reasons:
Reason 1) I am a good multi-tasker. I can respond to emails or texts while listening to someone.
Reality – Multitasking doesn’t work for cognitively demanding tasks.
Your attention is split between the person sitting with you and the phone. It will take you much longer to grasp what he is trying to communicate if you are simultaneously working on your phone. Actually, it’s penny-wise and pound foolish. Leaders feel they are saving time by doing these two things simultaneously, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a much better idea to put away the phone, laptop or any other distractions, and fully focus on the person during the meeting. You will comprehend everything much faster, in full depth, plus as a bonus you would have conveyed your care and respect to the person by the sheer act of deep listening. The gains you receive by being “fully present” far outweigh the time savings you “think” you receive by listening while multitasking.
Reason 2) I have a lot of work and not enough time, so I try to save time by multi-tasking during the meetings.
Reality – This is clearly a managerial effectiveness problem. Many “time thieves” will be found in the answers to these questions – Are you delegating enough? Are you planning and prioritizing well? Are you taking on too much work? Are you attending too many long and unproductive meetings? Is a meeting even required, or can the work be done through online communication? Is there a clear agenda for those meetings? Are you spending excessive time online or on social media? Are you managing your personal energy well (nutrition, water, exercise, sleep, meditation etc.)?
It’s a mistake to solve the problem of “not enough time” by multi-tasking.
An interesting story about Mullah Nasruddin elucidates this error very well. Once, Nasruddin was searching his house for a diamond he had lost. A friend stopped by, and asked him about where the diamond fell. Nasruddin said it fell on the road, but since there is no light on the road, he is searching within his house, as there is light here. A classic example of using a convenient, though incorrect solution, without proper diagnosis of the causes.
Time has to be released by better planning, prioritization, time & personal energy management as well as effective managerial practices. And not by attempting to multi-task when someone needs you to listen deeply.
Now, let’s look at some deep listening skills:
- Tell your mind to shut up and listen – We speak at an average rate of 125-150 words per minute (wpm), and the mind can grasp upto about 300 wpm or even more. So, while listening to someone, the mind has enough unutilized capacity to gladly run into its fantasies, fears, weekend getaways and what to eat for dinner. Be aware of the mind’s tendency to betray you, and don’t give in to its distractions. Do a mental check from time to time, reminding yourself to align your body language (eye contact, leaning forward, nods) and verbal cues to ensure that you are “fully present” while listening.
- Turn OFF your inner judge – As you are listening, the judge sitting inside you will keep passing verdicts – good / bad, right / wrong. Turn it OFF. Try to listen with an open mind, paying attention to the other person’s experience. The experience is very real for her, and she is trying to bring you in to her world to see things from her perspective. Replace the inner judge with empathy, trying to get into the other person’s shoes, and learn where it pinches. When you listen with empathy, the person feels safe and comfortable to share her thoughts honestly.
- Reflect and inquire – Good listeners provide a lot of clarity to the speaker. They do this with the twin skills of reflection and inquiry. Oftentimes, people seek someone to hear them out because there is just “too much going on in their head”. There are knots, twists, tangles and dead-ends in their thoughts. The listener reflects back the person’s thoughts “If I understand correctly, you are saying …..”, and the speaker responds to it. The listener then asks deeper questions – “What is the exact concern? Is it this or is it that? How does this make you feel?” This back and forth churning makes the person go deep within to search for answers. And it is in this search for answers that many knots in his thinking are untangled, and suddenly everything appears much clearer. A good rule of thumb is 80 / 20 – you should be listening 80% of the time, and speaking to reflect or inquire in the balance 20% of the time.
- Calm yourself - Your own emotional state is an indicator of your ability to listen. You cannot listen well when you are experiencing extreme emotions. Try to pace out meetings where you need to listen deeply. If you have a stormy issue to deal with, then don’t schedule a critical meeting right after that. Give yourself some time to get back to your centre and re-balance yourself, so that you can serve as a calm receptacle when you have to listen deeply.
Go ahead, make a start with deep listening, and you should soon be able to see the positive results for yourself!