Illustration by Sophie Wainwright

If people knew the true gold in listening, there would be a listening gym on every corner

Why listening is an ability we all need to practise if we want more self-managing teams

The following is an extract from the book ‘Moose Heads on the Table: Stories About Self-Managing Organisations from Sweden’ by Karin Tenelius and Lisa Gill.

“Listening is at the source of all great leadership. It is a core skill, not only for leadership, but for all domains of professional mastery.”
– Otto Scharmer, Presencing Institute

One of the reasons listening is extremely valuable is because it starts to build a culture of psychological safety — a term Amy Edmondson defines in her book “The Fearless Organisation” as “as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves”. Of course, being a great listener (and indeed coach) doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything someone says or pander to them like a caring parent. So often all people need is to feel heard and suddenly, they’re able to reclaim their power.

Practicing your ability to listen is the most important task for a coaching leader, and a crucial part of being an effective team member in a self-managing organisation. It’s difficult to distinguish listening as an ability, and listening as just a function of hearing what someone is saying. When we talk about listening, we mean listening not just to what is being said, but to what is not being said, to who the person is, and listening for what’s missing, for what needs to be accomplished. In other words, listening is about more subtle, elusive things than just spoken words. Without being able to listen, you can’t ask the kind of coaching questions that move things forward. The clues for what questions to ask are in what you hear, not in your own head. We believe if people really knew the true value of listening and how many unexpected results lie on the other side of it — efficiency, life-changing moments, money, decisions, ownership — there would be a listening gym on every corner and people would flock to spend hours training their listening skills.

There are two outcomes of this kind of listening. The first is that when you truly listen, rather than interpret, it can reveal invaluable insights and empower people. For example, you can listen for what’s in the way for someone to achieve their goal, or listen for what’s really important to them, or listen for what’s missing in order for a group to make a decision. The second outcome of listening in this way is that a person feels heard and “felt,” having an experience of being truly “gotten” by another human being. This takes care of the receptors in the reptilian and emotional part of our brains, freeing up capacity for us to think clearly and creatively and take action. Truly listening to someone can clear the fog for them to see a way forward and draw on their own potential.

Ultimately, what you are aiming for is a way of being that is listening. The way to access this way of being is to practice some behavioural things that might feel a bit awkward and inauthentic at first, but over time can become integrated into your own way of doing things.

“The experience of being understood, versus interpreted, is so compelling you can charge admission.”

— B. Joseph Pine II

The starting point is to become a beginner again and realise just how little we actually listen to each other as human beings. Invite colleagues, friends and loved ones to give you feedback on how you listen to them. Build in moments of reflection after meetings or conversations to evaluate your own listening — was I listening so that person felt truly heard and felt? Or was I just listening until it was my turn to talk? Or listening to analyse what they’re saying so I can offer a solution? Or listening so I can appear to be good at listening?

Here are some access points into developing a listening way of being:

  • Summarise and confirm what you’ve heard: “So what I’m hearing you say is [their words]…is that right?”
  • Mirror feelings: “I can hear that you’re feeling really frustrated…”
  • If you find it hard to listen in certain situations, you can use the MAP Skill from Alan Watkin’s book “4D Leadership” when you notice yourself being triggered:

Move your attention away from your own thinking and drop into the body and breathe;

Appreciate the speaker (appreciate here means listening with unconditional positive regard — you don’t have to agree with what they’re saying, but you can consider that this is their view and it’s valid);

Play back the underlying meaning.

  • And finally, slow down! Many of us are always “on our way” and in a hurry to move onto some kind of action. If you have a tendency to give people advice or offer solutions or be impatient, remind yourself that this is not a problem to be solved, it is a human being to listen to.

Want to learn more? You’ll find more information about the book and how to order it here.

Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.

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