Listen, Learn, Lead

Listen, Learn, Lead

Category : 2020

The words “listen” and “silent” use the exact same letters.

Hostage and crisis negotiators are taught that a barricaded person or hostage taker will generally move between two styles of behavior. When showing instrumental behavior, the subject presents a list of demands and defined objectives that will benefit the person. Expressive behavior communicates the subject’s passion, despair, anger, or other feelings. The only way a negotiator can deescalate a volatile situation and guide a negotiation to a successful resolution is by using active listening to determine what the person wants and what the person wants someone to hear.

Words like hear and listen are slippery. We use them so often their meanings become blurred, so when we encounter them in conversation, we slide past them to the next idea. When we hear, we perceive a sound. When listening, we give attention to the sound. In a hostage situation, the difference between perceiving and giving attention can be literally, life and death. In a business context, the impact of choosing to hear and not listen may be less immediate, but it is no-less perilous.

The bad news about leading people is you don’t get to pick your crisis or choose when it happens. And crises have a nasty way of not waiting for one to pass before a second hits. A health pandemic, an economic tsunami, painful decisions about business survival, and the impact of long-standing social inequities have arrived at the door of every leader—and these challenges will not be ignored. Listening is quickly becoming a force multiplier.

Most communication courses focus on better presenting, not better listening. But talking before listening, perpetuates the malady captured by Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier 30 years ago when he said, “Listen to all the conversations of our world, between nations as well as between individuals. They are, for the most part, dialogues of the deaf.” 

A leader that wants to effectively lead through the smorgasbord of crises currently facing corporate executives will refuse to hide in a dialogue of the deaf and will leverage three tools that turn conversation into communication.

Ask for the opinion you don’t want to hear. Andy Stanley is right—”Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” In a moment of crisis, a leader is tempted to seclude him or herself in an inner circle of close relationships that generally align with the leader’s thinking. Leaders that find a solid path through a crisis promote with their teams and across their organizations, the psychological safety that encourages desperately needed cognitive diversity. An effective crisis leader possesses the self-security that welcomes opinions and ideas that challenge and reveal inadequacies in commonly and even widely-held beliefs.

Seek understanding before a solution. Stephen Covey insightfully taught that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply . . . reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.” A leader that effectively traverses the unanticipated is someone that stops saying, “I understand,” and says instead, “Help me understand.” When people in an organization show anemic enthusiasm for a proposed solution, it is often because they aren’t convinced leadership is fixing the real problem. Symptoms are noisy. Root causes often are not. The only way to get past the noise of symptoms is by taking the time to fully understand what problem demands a solution.

Pursue and speak only the truth. One senior leader discovered as he inherited greater responsibilities, he also acquired a group of people whose jobs appeared to be keeping the truth from landing on the leader’s desk. This wise executive assembled a clandestine network of people he could call to tell him what was really happening across the organization he led. While the truth does set one free, that doesn’t mean the truth is easy to hear, that truth never hurts, that it results in a pleasant ending, or that telling the truth solves the problem. In some cases, stating the truth creates more problems. The leader that guides people through a crisis accepts that while discovering the truth can bring pain, it is much preferred to the agony that comes when the truth finds you.

The tragedy of this entire discussion is that many crises could be avoided if someone had led effectively from the start. The leader that guides people through an unexpected crisis is usually someone who is already leading in a way that prevents or avoids a calamity. Leaders rarely get the opportunity to choose their crises. They always get to choose what they will do in a crisis. Their priority in a crisis is to listen—deliberately, carefully, and openly.