There’s a big difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is perceiving a sound; listening is giving your attention to a sound. The thing that separates hearing and listening is found in that one simple word: attention. People don’t just want to be heard, they want to be listened to. They want to know that you’re giving them your full attention when they share things with you that are important to them.
Great leaders are great listeners. So often we stress the importance of communication in leadership, yet we fail to recognize the importance of listening in communication. Yes, communication is critical to leadership. But communication is not a one-way exchange. It’s not just your ability to share ideas and rally support that will determine your success as a leader. Your ability to listen to others, to demonstrate attentiveness and show those you lead that you value what they have to say, will be instrumental in your effectiveness as a leader.
I want to share three quick thoughts with you on how to listen like a leader. Since we’re on the subject of listening, I’ll start each point with a quote from someone other than myself.
Dr. Stephen Covey, author of the acclaimed leadership classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Of course, our natural inclination is the reverse. When we engage with people in conversation, our first priority most often is to share our thoughts, ideas, or perspective with them. If we seek to understand them at all, we usually do so after our attempt to get our point across.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be understood or explaining yourself. That’s an important part of daily life and leadership. It’s necessary for teamwork and collaboration. Dr. Covey’s advice is simply to reverse the order in which we prioritize speaking and listening. Before sharing your side of things, shift your focus onto the other person. What are they trying to communicate? What is it that they want you to know or understand? Especially in difficult or heated conversations, this small shift in your perspective can have a significant impact on the outcome of the interaction. Before speaking to be understood, listen to understand.
Bryant McGill, thought leader, author, activist, and social entrepreneur, says, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Before we even get to what listening can do for you, let’s talk about what listening to others does for them. Listening is a show of respect for another human being. It says what you have to say matters to me. Your input is worth my time and full attention. It tells the people around you that they are important and valuable.
Showing respect is endearing. Respect is something everyone wants and many people don’t feel they receive enough. When someone feels respected, they are more likely to share honestly and reciprocate by listening attentively. No one wants to open up to someone they don’t feel values them. Even when you’re not speaking, you’re communicating. So before you speak to offer your insight, listen to tell the person you’re speaking with that you value them.
We recently lost a television icon, Larry King. He once said, “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening.” That’s great insight. The irony of Larry King’s job is that the title is deceiving. We often call a person in his position a talk show host. But, the reality is, the job of a talk show host is not to talk. It is, primarily, to listen. A talk show host is hired to get the other person talking so we can all listen to what they have to say.
If you never listen, you’ll never learn. The vast majority of everything you now know you once learned by listening. You never know where your next great insight is going to come from. Every person you encounter is in some way your superior. They know something you don’t. They have something you need. But if you don’t take the time to listen, you just might miss it.
I’ll leave you with one final quote. This one’s a bonus. I once heard Andy Stanley, the pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia, say something to the effect of, “Leaders who fail to listen will soon be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” In my experience, this couldn’t be more true. If you want to be part of something bigger than yourself, you are going to need strong leaders around you. But strong leaders won’t last long in an environment where their best ideas are not heard. Eventually, they will go somewhere where their unique contributions will make a difference. Don’t allow something so simple, and so fully within your control, to rob you of the potential all around you. If you can learn to listen, you will find yourself surrounded by people who have something to say.
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