On Christmas Eve, I joined my mom for Mass at our home church. With Dad gone, I didn't want mom to be alone. Funny that I thought I was going for her, when in fact, the sermon that night seemed written for me.
"You may be familiar with the television program, Inside the Actor's Studio," the priest began. He continued to share about watching the show and how his favorite part was at the end of every interview when the host, James Lipton, asks his guest 10 questions. The questions originally came from a French series hosted by Bernard Pivot, and the answers reveal a lot about a person's thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Father Bodin recalled an episode where Mr. Lipton had interviewed Stephen Spielberg; it stuck with him because of how Mr. Spielberg answered the final question:
"If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?"
Spielberg paused for a moment then replied, "Thanks for listening."
Then Father Bodin asked us: are you listening? Are you listening for God's presence, His guidance, and His love for you? Are you paying attention, picking up the messages and responding? Do you take the time to listen intentionally?
It seemed to me, as I listed to the sermon, that these same questions could be asked of leaders. I'm not necessarily talking about listening for God's voice (we'll save that for a different post). I'm talking about listening to those around you, whether above, below, or on your same level on the organizational chart. Are you a leader who listens?
Listening well is hard, and often inconvenient.
Familiarity can make us lazy listeners. When in conversation with someone, especially someone we know well, we tend to anticipate what we think someone will or won't say. Rather than listen for meaning, we make it up based on experience. That leads to thinking about what you are going to say next, rather than actually listening to what is being said. My ex husband would stop talking if he thought I wasn't listening. He made this judgment based on whether I was looking at him intently or not. If I looked out the window or at someone else, he would get frustrated and accuse me of not listening. He wasn't all wrong. After we had been together for a while, neither of us gave the other our full attention -- not like when we were dating.
Time is not always on our side when it comes to listening well. Tasks and deadlines get in the way of our best intentions to listen and connect with people -- at work, as well as at home. When you are rushed and not listening well, you can miss important details; when others sense you are rushed, they may intentionally leave out details, assuming you don't care. People learn what is important to us by what we give our time and attention.
It can be hard to listen when the person talking believes something different from you. The brain likes information that connects to information it already has. When presented with information that does not match, it kicks in a fear response -- as if you are being attacked. It's fight or flight time. Your frontal lobe is hijacked by your amygdala, limiting your ability to listen and amplifying the urgency to get away, change the subject or argue your point. This can also be when listening matters most, as there is value in legitimately considering opposing viewpoints. They can show us pitfalls, holes, or gaps in our thinking and our plans, pointing us to areas that need extra consideration. They can also alert us to strengths or opportunities to be better leveraged.
Listening well is not an activity. It's a skill. It requires focus and intent.
People can tell whether you are listening attentively to them or not. I know a high level manager who tries to listen, but he fidgets when he listens, and his fidgeting implies impatience. He is impatient, but he also knows the value of listening. We've worked on ways he can let people know that he is listening, in spite of his body language implying otherwise. It has helped him become a better listener.
I once worked for a president who said he had an open door policy, but I learned quickly that no one ever went in there. Those who did try to share information were given the impression that what they had to say was not necessarily unwelcome, but also not important. The door may have been open, but he was half-listening at best.
At a different company, I worked for a manager who kept working on her computer while I was speaking with her. I always offered to come back later, when she had time to listen, but she insisted she could do both. She'd say she was listening -- but her focus was not on me. I think she thought she was making me as important as the other task at hand -- but I didn't feel important. Worse, more often than not, we mis-communicated and ended up in deeper conflict. I would have preferred she either finish her task or ask me to wait a minute or two until she came to a good resting place -- so then she could give me her full attention.
Not sure if you are a leader who listens? Start paying attention.
Do people come to talk to you? Do they tell you stories and you're not sure why? When people listen to you, do they listen politely only because you have power? Do people listen when you speak in meetings or other exchanges -- or are they checking their phones or picking lint off their sweaters? When you speak to people lean in to hear what you have to say? If you are speaking quietly, do they ask you to speak up? Do people say, "thanks for listening"?
Are you a leader who listens? Are you paying attention to those around you? Do you legitimately engage with others and what they have to say, or do you check the box? Are you listening intentionally for both points of agreement and concern? Or do you quit listening when someone expresses disagreement or an alternate opinion? What does your body language say about your listening? Listen close enough and you'll hear the answers. Then you can choose -- this or something better.
Thanks for listening.