Leaderful Listening

Rebecca Morgan quote

In leadership training, participants are typically told how important listening is. Yet few heed the advice.

I can understand why. Often, it’s because we already think we are good listeners. But how a leader listens is more crucial than one’s listening style as a peer.

Leaders’ everyday behaviors have gravitas and impact. Subtleties and nuances can be misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. The simple act of pushing back on an idea can send a leader’s direct report into a tizzy. Leaders have to be much more mindful of how they respond to ideas offered by their direct reports.

I call this “leaderful listening.” I learned how to listen better as a leader from doing it wrong.

When I was in my first year on the board of my national professional association, I thought I was a good leader. But I had a lot to learn.

Tom, a long-time member approached me to suggest that our national convention should always be in his home city, San Francisco. I proceeded to tell him it was too expensive, our members liked to go to different cities each year, and there weren’t a lot of hotels that could accommodate the quantity of meeting rooms we need. Case closed.

I was essentially saying it was a stupid idea.

Is that how a good leader would listen. No!

I could have gently probed, “Tom, that’s an interesting idea. I appreciate your bringing this idea to me. I always want to be open to new ideas that will serve our members.

“I know San Francisco is the second top destination in the world, so I can see the appeal. I need some help thinking through a few concerns the board will have.”

“Even with group discounts, San Francisco hotel rooms are costlier than our members are used to paying. They are price sensitive and don’t attend our events if they hotel room price seems too high. How do you think we could mitigate this being an issue so we don’t lose attendees?”

“Our members say they like visiting different cities around the country, so how could we entice them to come back to the same city over and over?”

“One of our challenges is finding enough hotel meeting space. Our members aren’t keen on going to a nearby convention center. Do you know if the large hotels have a good number of meeting rooms?”

In my original approach, how likely would Tom offer other ideas? If this is my standard way of responding to new ideas, his willingness to offer more is close to zero.

By helping Tom understand the concerns and enlisting him to think through the solutions, he becomes an ally. He feels valued rather than shut down.

Even ideas that seem dumb when first offered can morph into great ideas by thinking though the possibilities. The new idea can shift your paradigm by causing you to approach the situation differently. You want to encourage fresh approaches, not squelch them.

How can you become a more leaderful listener?

* Acknowledge the person for offering new ideas, no matter if you think it’s a good one or not.
* Ask questions rather than shut down new ideas.
* Engage the other to help come up with solutions.
* Ensure your tone is gentle when you probe, not argumentative.