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Leadership and listening in the corporate world

Posted by Pierre-Yves Rahari on 11th August 2020

Covid-19 has dramatically changed our working habits and especially the way we communicate with each other through video. We have used Zoom intensively during the Covid-19 crisis and some interesting behaviour patterns have emerged. One being that we are obliged to let each other talk without interruption to allow a proper conversation to happen, and another the need to concentrate and listen very carefully in order to follow and make sense of the conversation going on. As we repeated this experience several times, we began to notice we were listening to each other more actively, and that it much improved our level of dialogue and understanding of each other.

Have we unintentionally re-discovered a great feature of leadership in action? And, will this propensity to listen actively continue as we gradually return to our offices and start meeting in person again? From what we’ve learned, we sincerely hope so and here is why we advocate listening as a leadership skill.

Why should corporate leaders switch their active listening skills on?

Active listening is an extremely powerful skill and a useful business management tool but how does it work? One of the most powerful exercise I experienced in counselling and executive coaching training was the following: Working in pairs, you take turn to expose a problem to one another, and while one person speaks, the other one has to stay silent for five minutes, then ten minutes, and so on, until one is able to calmly sit down and listen to the other person for an ongoing fifty minutes. While this exercise sounds contrived, the experience of listening becomes very real as one learns to concentrate, actively and respectfully look at the other person, gradually forego thoughts and ideas relating to oneself and instead let one’s mind absorb what is offered by the other person, not only verbally, but physically and emotionally. Things start to make sense then, and when asked to feedback what was heard, one is surprised by the depth of what one has heard, above and beyond the speaker’s expectations. A real dialogue is then able to start, leading to a very rich and somehow intimate exchange, and most often to constructive counselling and training sessions.

The idea here is not to transform corporate leaders into counsellors or executive coaches, but instead –as a parallel to the Zoom experience described above – switch on their active listening mode more frequently. This goes against the traditional image of the outspoken and articulate leader, but it will probably help leaders gain an important stock of information readily available to them, but only accessible through the power of active listening. This “underground” information will prove rich and useful in their ensuing work as leaders. Let’s now see how, and what to listen to as we prepare to return to our offices.

7 ways to use listening as a powerful skill in the office

Difficult as is seems to imagine ourselves back in the office scenario, it is an inevitability in some shape or form over the coming weeks and months. While this is uncharted territory, some active listening techniques will come in useful. I will draw from my experience as a consultant and as an executive coach to propose a few do’s and don’ts in active listening, bearing in mind that these tips apply to an exchange between two persons or more:

  • Acknowledge your partner: Communication is all about sending signals to your partner. In this case, tell or signal to your partner that you welcome their presence and that conversely, you are happy to share time and space – even virtually – with them;
  • Signal that you are ready to listen: This is your second courtesy move. Tell or signal to your partner that you are withdrawing and that the space is theirs to fill now;
  • Switch yourself off, but switch yourself on, too: Switch your thoughts off as you start listening, and stop mentally, let alone verbally, commenting on what you hear and see. Most importantly, leave any judgments that may emerge on the side, and resist the temptation to respond or counteract. Just switch yourself off. At the same time, although it may sound contradictory, switch on all of your antennas on, and let yourself observe, listen, smell or even touch what is going on in front of you, and enjoy the moment. Breathe with the flow;
  • Let the information sink in: You will hear things, you will see things, other ideas will emerge. Just let this happen. Don’t analyse, don’t overthink. Some of the information you will get is tangible, while some will be intangible, often unconscious. Let all of this sink in, and again, resist the temptation to jump in or comment;
  • Signal that you are still listening: Another courtesy move. Smile, nod, repeat what you heard, ask clarifying questions (but not judgmental ones) … there are many ways to keep the line open and signal to your partner that you are still there with them. In other words, stay present;
  • Silence is fine: Silences are breathing spaces in a dialogue. Let them happen. Resist the temptation to fill them; this will bring in oxygen to your conversation, your mind and your space;
  • Switch yourself back on, and smile, the work is done: You will know when it is time to switch yourself back on again. Smile to signal this to your partner, but resist the temptation to comment on what you heard. Breathe, and gradually take your turn in the conversation.

Three techniques for beyond the one-on-one conversations

As we prepare to return to the office in September, we need to gather a lot of data that will inform our post-Covid-19 corporate strategies. How can we make use of the above listening tips above and beyond the one-on-one conversations, to maximise our information gathering?

  • Listen to people: Engage in a dialogue with anyone that is prepared to share or discuss their views. Don’t discriminate who you talk with, instead, humbly listen to what is being said;
  • Listen to what you read or see: Likewise, cast your reading, viewing and listening net quite wide, and listen to what is said, reflect but don’t judge;
  • Listen to what you can’t hear, and stay alert: As said, let your senses capture what is not being said; again, be open to unexpected dialogue, and prepare to manage curve balls.

And finally…

If I were to retain one tip from the tips we offer here, it is the humility and kindness of continuously offering gestures of courtesy to your dialogue partners: Acknowledging, withdrawing, listening, signalling and so forth. This needs to be a repeated exercise that builds into a habit, which will gradually create a deep and solid connection with your partners and, if extended to other sources of information, will provide you with and incommensurable amount of useful and relevant data for strategic consideration.

 

 

 

 

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