Listening. What an incredible skill! It is not one that many people are consistently good at, including myself. When done well, listening is an art. Good listening calls for full attention, absolute mindfulness, a leaning-in without leaning too close. It asks for a warm embracing of the space and the moment, with room created for breathing and expressing. Good listening asks for empathy and connection- a putting of oneself in another person's shoes or skin. Good listening asks for the listener to set aside his or her personal agendas and lists, opinions and ideas, in order to simply be able to truly hear what the other person has to say. It sounds simple enough, but the act of real listening is extremely difficult for many people, because we are all so busy and there is so much stimulus around us all of the time. Our brains are wired to make connections, and it seems we are always thinking. Our thoughts are the main obstructions to our being able to listen. When we try to listen, our listening may be overrun by many things: random thoughts, lists of things that need to be done, daydreams, ego-induced responses to what is being said, non-ego-induced responses to what is being said, exciting new ideas that arise in response to what is being said... and many more types of thoughts. Our minds are crafty and mysterious, and sometimes they are churning and working, interrupting our ability to listen, without our even being aware of it! Have you ever caught yourself completely lost in another world while someone is talking to you? That sudden awareness snaps you back to attention, and you try to play mental catch-up, silently grasping at the words before they fall to the floor, so that you can try to appear as if you are listening? I think most of us have experienced that before, and I don't think it makes us bad people. But I do think that learning to be a good listener is worth the effort it will take to become one. Listening is a valuable skill.
Listening, when done well, lets the other person know that he or she was heard. We all want to be heard, mostly to be understood. There is something validating and comforting about being understood. So as a communicator, I need to seek to understand, at least as often as I seek to be understood, or else it isn't true communication- it's just me talking. Everyone can benefit from becoming a better communicator, but anyone who is going to be successful as a leader will have made it a priority skill to learn. A leader can only lead if he or she understands the causes, issues, and people he or she is leading. A leader must take it all in, must ask questions and listen to the answers, for those answers contain opinions, emotions, concerns, and stories that, when taken together, can help a leader to fully understand the issue at hand, and lead the leader to the decision or solution that will best benefit the people, situation and organization.
Personally I struggle with being a good listener, unless I mindfully do so. By that, I mean that I need to purposefully recognize that this is a moment to listen, and then set aside everything else very purposefully in order to create the space and conditions to be able to listen. If I do that, I truly listen. Many times I think I can listen while doing other things, but there is only partial attention being paid to what is being said, and usually that person knows it. My children are the best at identifying when I'm not listening 100%- and they will always call me on it. They keep me honest :) The other thing I have noticed with myself in regard to listening well is that there are times when I will pick up on cues from the other person that tell me it is urgent that I listen to this person, NOW! Maybe it's an emergency situation or maybe there is an emotional urgency coming from the other person. Whatever it is, I find it to be amazing how sometimes I just know, and it takes absolutely no effort to snap to attention and be fully present with the person, listening effortlessly with all of my available senses. Whereas other times that are less urgent or of interest, sometimes true listening isn't a skill available to me. It is definitely something to work on.
This week as I continue my teaching of habits to my boys, we'll talk about listening, what makes a good listener, why it's important to listen, and what we can do to become better listeners. I am also very interested in what they will have to say about leaders and listening. What perceptions do they already have about that? I'll ask some questions of them... and then I'll listen to what they have to say :) I have a feeling they'll feel pretty confident sharing on this topic.