Is Anyone Listening?

I think most of us would agree that the current Presidential race has been one of the most controversial and interesting elections in some time, regardless of which party or candidate you support. I suppose it’s because so many people feel that our country is at a very important crossroad.

As the election process has unfolded, it has also become very clear that many of us profoundly distrust not only that process but our political culture as a whole. There’s a strong sense—cutting across party lines—that “politicians” will say and promise virtually anything to get elected, but that all too frequently they fail to deliver on their promises. There’s a sense that politicians—especially those “on the other side”—simply can’t be trusted to tell us the truth. Without putting too fine a point on it, they lie.

And underlying all of this, there’s a sense that the people who run for office, and get elected to office, just don’t listen to us. It’s easy to see where that comes from. Just watch any debate or interview. How often do the candidates answer a question directly, as opposed to shifting over to one of their well scripted talking points?

Some people say, “Well, that’s just the political game. They have to play it that way or their agenda will never be heard.” Or, “These questions are complicated, but people don’t have patience for complicated answers.” Maybe. But let me ask you this: how do you feel when a political figure—or anyone else for that matter—refuses to give you a straight answer to an important question?

For myself, when I ask someone a question and they dodge it, I feel that I haven’t been listened to and that the person on the other side of the conversation simply can’t be trusted. If you want me to trust you, the first thing you need to do is show me the courtesy of really listening to what I have to say. Listening is the foundation on which we can build a trusting relationship.

This is true for all relationships, not just that between political leaders and their constituents. It’s certainly true for business leaders. I’ve mentioned in previous postings that I believe the Servant–Leader model is a better way to lead, but how can you begin to serve your people if you’re not really listening to them?

What do I mean by really listening?  I mean something like what Stephen Covey refers to as “empathic listening.” In Covey’s words, “In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.”

As Covey points out, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.” That’s a habit we have to work hard to overcome.

How do you do that? Start by being present with your people, making eye contact and doing your best to remain non-judgmental during the discussion. Avoid distractions: don’t look at your watch or check your e-mail, and turn your phone off. (I know that sounds ridiculously obvious, but people do this stuff all the time.) Try as hard as you can not to think of your response while the other person is talking. Speak less. Try to remember the words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who said, “We have two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

And when you do speak, be honest. Yes, it’s true that as a leader at any level, you need to be sensitive to the “politics” of the organization, which sometimes means being careful about what you say and to whom you say it. But it’s also true that if you’re trying to build trust and high engagement across your organization, you have to start by really listening to people, and you have to be honest when you respond. People may not always like what they hear, but they’ll know your position and they’ll have a better idea of how to predict your reactions in the future—both critical to building trust.

So, once again, it comes down to this: you can’t be an effective leader if your people don’t trust you, and your people won’t trust you if you don’t listen to them. You don’t always have to agree with them, or do what they want you to do, but you have to respect them by listening to them and really hearing them.

And as always, I look forward to hearing from you.


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