Why listening lies at the heart of impactful leadership

Being a leader who listens

 Leadership life is busy, really busy. We talk about our heads ‘buzzing’, ‘multi-tasking’ and ‘managing distractions’. We all know listening is important, but focusing on really listening is tough when we’re aware of time pressures, something that’s just happened and what we need to attend to next. 

The irony is we love it when we’re listened to, and are often frustrated when we’re not. 

Listening lies at the heart of our being able to prioritise effectively and make good decisions based on the data we gather, our context, and show we care. As we deliver to deadlines, lead improvement, problem solve and take care of our people and teams we have a constant narrative inside our head. So how does that internal story impact the quality of our listening? Well it depends! 

Our internal listening can be a great ally. If we’re skilled at noticing working with it we can learn to ‘self-coach’. We can notice when what’s presented as facts can be usefully questioned for evidence, or when our bias about a person or situation is precluding us from seeing new possibilities or points of view. 

Chris Argyris, organisational theorist, says when two people are interacting there are always three conversations taking place – the ‘public’ conversation which anyone listening in can hear, and the ‘private conversations’ taking place inside each person’s head. If we hear someone relating a conversation they may well tell us about not only the public conversation, but also their private thoughts at the time – the void between the two may reveal they were effectively managing their emotional state, or perhaps not feeling safe enough to be honest.

Alan Sieler, author of ‘Coaching to the Human Soul’ says:

Our private conversations are powerful shapers of how we observe, what we listen to and how available we are to what others are saying.

He presents a useful take on listening:

And, he explores three kinds of listening – automatic, always and already 

All of this begins with noticing; noticing our own internal narrative in real time. ‘Observing’ our own listening, and starting to notice and bring to the fore the internal listening of others. A good step to help can be to ask a question – perhaps for clarity, detail or context. If you hear an opinion, check for evidence to support the opinion. If you observe emotion which is unexpressed – gently ask about it. 

If you think back to a recent conversation that didn’t go so well, or could have gone much better – where were you in your listening? How available were you to what was being said? And how was your own internal listening precluding you from hearing what was being said?

Why does this matter? Well because listening is essential to:

  • building a sense of belonging, knowing we’re heard as a legitimate other and understood.
  • enabling us to empathise and care
  • hearing the ideas and contributions of others
  • understanding potential risks and concerns and work to overcome them
  • developing effective plans and solutions with high team commitment 

Remember, it all starts with noticing.

We can notice, recognise and re-focus

  • Notice our own internal stories, views, opinions and biases
  • Recognise when within seconds of listening, we’re already running a response in our thoughts
  • Re-focus on what the person speaking is saying

    Ask yourself:
  • Have I fully heard?
  • Am I sure I’ve listened to what was actually said (as opposed to what I think was said)?
  • Have I created an empathetic space for this colleague to communicate what’s on their mind?

If you’d like to know more, do check out Essential Skills for Leadership Impact here: https://learning.helenmgconsulting.com/

Backed by research, the practices in the programme impact positively on participants’ ability to:

  • Grow the learning and productivity of teams
  • Enhance team relationships and performance
  • Develop grounded confidence and competence Improve organisational culture and wellbeing
  • Continue their development based on their professional learning plan

The programme is fully online for independent study, great for new and experienced leaders to study as an individual or to book your whole team on and use the materials in a learning group. 

Here’s what a recent participant shared:

‘’I love your work for its quality and the way it gathers the best of the knowledge in the field and presents it in an easily accessible way.’’ Maxine, Director M&P Consultancy.