Our relationship with listening of course starts early, our parents normally having the largest influence as they guide our formative years. Our personality traits that developed in childhood evolve further as we establish and then grow our lives and careers. In the course of this journey, we think the value of listening gets forgotten or is overlooked. Let us explain.
We are struck by how often perception of leaders is driven by what they do and say rather than how well they listen. As an exercise and example type best public orators into google; then type best public listeners. We don’t celebrate listening yet ironically the best public speakers also tend to be brilliant at listening; understanding the views of others and appreciating the world around them makes their content richer.
‘Active listening’ is a term often used in parenting self-help books, i.e. really concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively following the message of the person speaking. In addition, listening is much more than just hearing and absorbing information; it is also about being inquisitive, considerate, and showing how you have interpreted what has just been said. These are much sought after traits in the modern leader. Yet how often do we engage in conversations where it feels like the other person/people are desperate to get their viewpoint across, to the point where it is questionable whether they have digested yours.
In a world of work where EQ is now rightly valued as much as IQ, great listening skills can make the difference. When plotting your career development consider the following scenarios and how being a brilliant listener might help your progress:
- Are you comfortable in a silence? – this is not a vacuum that desperately needs filling, silence gives thinking time and enables more coherent, considered responses.
- How do you converse – do you think and talk or think then talk? Whichever is you, practice the other, adaptability is an excellent trait to master.
- Do you seek advice? Advice is defined as ‘guidance or recommendations offered with regard to prudent future action’ – what’s not to like about that? You don’t have to follow advice given but considering the views of others can be a key driver in better decision making.
- Do you dismiss calls from executive search providers? Whether you are currently in client or candidate mode, it is easy to dismiss a call from a head-hunter, especially when you are busy. This conversation could however lead to many things - a better job opportunity, market intelligence on a competitor, benchmarking on your remuneration, insight into economic trends, useful network connections and events, to name but a few.
- When interviewing for your dream job do you move into full sell mode, missing the nuance of the question and body language in the room? If so try allowing a question to be asked and spend time considering the question before answering it concisely, a short silence between question and answer may feel like a lifetime but will demonstrate you have listened and absorbed the question.
- Is conversation like a competitive sport to you? We have all been in those conversations, that battle to make the cleverest point and get everyone to come around to your way of thinking. Knowledge is power, a person talking is revealing information, the listener is receiving it. Who is getting the best deal?
- Are you infamous for talking too much? No-one wants to be the person who as soon as they open their mouth, a collective sigh goes around the room in the knowledge you are settling in for the long-haul. If you listen, then speak selectively, you are far more likely to say something interesting and people are far more likely to listen.
To be clear, we are not at all advocating keeping your opinions to yourself. Leaders need to communicate and inspire; but spending time listening and absorbing can have massive business benefits. The Dalai Lama once said, “when you talk you are only repeating what you already know, but when you listen you may learn something new”. From a manufacturers perspective this could be hearing about a revolutionary product idea, a health & safety tweak that could save a lost time accident, or an efficiency measure that drives out cost.
Teams that are listened to feel valued and engaged. They are also far more likely to enthusiastically respond when a specific call to arms is required. Listening is a powerful relationship-building and selling tool, really understanding what the other party wants and offering you the opportunity to tailor your approach.
David Thomas is a Partner at Berwick Partners, focused on leadership appointments within manufacturing. Catherine Osman is a Principal Researcher at Berwick Partners and leads on research activity in the manufacturing sector.