Leading through listening

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By Dino Signore

A frequent concern I hear from second-stage business leaders is how to improve their team’s ability to make good decisions and sound judgments. The answer to this quest — or at least part of the answer — is deceptively simple: Become a better listener.

In “More Time to Think,” author Nancy Kline writes: “The way people behave with each other actually determines the quality of their thinking. Behavior in the listener is more important than IQ, education, experience or background in the thinker.”

Founder of an international leadership development and coaching company, Kline developed a framework to improve communications called The Thinking Environment. Her framework has 10 components: attention, equality, ease, appreciation, encouragement, feelings, information, diversity, incisive questions and place. All of the components help improve communications, but attention particularly resonates with me.

Most people see listening as a waste of time and are waiting for gaps in a conversation so they can jump in with their own thoughts, Kline points out. Yet interruptions only diminish the quality of thinking that’s going on. In contrast, attentive listening is a creative force, Kline says. Good listeners serve as catalysts, helping a thinker both to relax and fire up neurons in their brains.

But just because you aren’t interrupting or thinking about what to say next, doesn’t mean your mind is a blank. Far from it, Kline says good listeners must focus on three things simultaneously:

  • The content of what the other person is saying. Good listening is an act of curiosity. You want to be genuinely interested in where the thinker is going to go next. You’re listening to understand deeply what they are saying.
  • Your response to what the other person is saying. But that doesn’t mean you jump in and stop them. You’re trying to come up with productive questions that will take them to the next level. When you do have the opportunity to respond, your questions may have changed.
  • The thinking environment that you’re providing. For example, people notice when you’re not paying attention, so don’t try to multitask. Maintain appropriate eye contact and turn off your cell phone. Better yet, stick it in a drawer.

Giving someone your undivided attention is no passive assignment. This is especially true in today’s world of constant distractions, which is why you have to be intentional about the quality of your listening.

I also want to briefly touch on the “equality” component of Kline’s framework, which requires the listener to take a certain cognitive stance that everyone you talk to is intelligent, that they know the solution to a problem. Equality also involves boundaries, such as the listener clarifying that he or she doesn’t expect the thinker’s thinking to mirror their own.

This is especially important for business leaders, because subordinates know they’re vulnerable to being fired and may not tell the boss what he or she really needs to hear. To prevent this, leaders can establish ground rules, such as emphasizing no one will be harmed here by something that’s said. You don’t expect them to have thoughts that align with yours. Instead, you’re looking for ideas that are for the common good of the organization.

I’m a big fan of Edgar Schein and believe that his theories on inquiry dovetail with attentive listening. The knee-jerk reaction of leaders, consultants and coaches (or anyone with authority) is to tell subordinates what to do. Granted, there are times when you really do need to issue an order (e.g., The building is on fire, leave your office now!) Yet in most situations, command-and-control leadership puts people on the defensive, makes them feel powerless — and wreaks neurological havoc by decreasing their ability to think clearly.

Instead of telling, learn how to leverage inquiry — and then listen hard. The seven most powerful words in management are: I don’t know. What do you think? This is true even when you know the answer. Handing employees a ready-made solution may help them in the short term, but in the long term, you’re creating a legacy of dependency.

Consider your ask-to-tell ratio. How often are you asking employees questions versus telling them something? If you’re not sure, start tracking it over the next few days. To be an effective leader, your ratio should be dominated by “asks.”

Leadership is an act of influence. For the most part, today’s economy is knowledge-based, so the success of your company depends on your employees’ enhanced ability to think. Combining attentive listening with inquiry will go a long way to positively influence the thinking of your team.

Article copyright © 2019 by Edward Lowe Foundation

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Dino Signore, PhD
Manager of Entrepreneurial Education
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Second stage is an important inflection point for entrepreneurs, says Dino Signore, the foundation's manager of entrepreneurial education. On the plus side, second-stagers have a proven product or service under their belts and have attracted initial customers, so survival is no longer a daily concern. Yet as they strive to gain a stronger foothold in the market and win more customers, second-stagers now face more strategic issues, such as building infrastructure to scale, honing their competitive edge and expanding into new markets.