If there is a single attribute essential for a leader, it is the habit of listening for understanding. Why? Because people do not care what you know until they know you care. Listening to others is one of the primary ways we communicate we care.
I was reading a book recently on genuine humility. The writer’s comments struck me profoundly. He said: If you have a conversation with a truly humble person you will get up from the experience thinking to yourself that this person cares about me. And, why do I feel this way? Because this person listened to me and tried to genuinely understand my situation before they responded to me. It takes humility to listen.
One of my favorite Scripture verses is Colossians 4:5,6: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” How do you know how to respond if you’re not actively listening first to understand the problem? This is saying to practice empathy. Listen to understand before trying to be understood. It is empathic listening that communicates value to another person. When they feel valued by your listening then they are influenced to care about what you have to say.
A few tips to do this:
Maintain eye contact
Focus on understanding
Ask open-ended, clarifying questions
Have open body language
Do not try to fix the problem
Do not interrupt
Replay what you hear to confirm understanding
Empathy is a complex set of skills that can be learned and developed into habits.
My observation over the years is that many times the problem solves itself by just listening and asking questions. And, of course, the ultimate question to ask after you understand the problem is: What are you going to do about this?
Great leaders are masters at leading by listening and asking questions – first seeking to understand the problem and then asking the right questions to invite people to solve the problem themselves.
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