Listen, Listen, Listen

June 14, 2023

by John O. Burdett

If you don’t listen you can’t learn. If you don’t learn, what lies ahead is destined to be but more of what is past.

Learn to Listen

Your partner, in all probability, wishes you would do more of it. It’s the secret sauce in selling. Disputes don’t get resolved without it. It’s the earn in learn. It’s what makes a supervisor super. And it’s the key to unlocking the DNA of the informal organisation.

It’s not a secret elixir or an advanced management technique. It is, however, the difference that makes a difference. Listeners leave a legacy. Learn to listen like your life as leader depends on it. Make no mistake, it does!

Be it an all staff meeting, the Christmas lunch or meeting members of the team informally, there is one non-negotiable rule. To be a great listener, you have to be fully present. You have to be there. Distraction distorts direction. It destroys discipline.

Hearing is Not the Same as Listening

There are lots of reasons to engage cruise control, to let the mind drift, to think about what you want to say while the speaker is still in full-flow. The disconnected dialogue of the Zoom meeting being yet one more. No one was ever criticised for being “too good a listener.” Prepare, clear the mind, focus and review how well you listened at the end of every interaction.

Be open. Develop a beginner’s mind. Choose to be the last one to speak. Listen to every suggestion as if it’s a new suggestion. Explore beyond the obvious. Those who tune into the informal organisation see possibility through a wide-angle lens.

We are hardwired to infer the speaker’s intentions; to interpret both what is said and what is implied. That you are here at all is because it’s an innate capability that your ancestors excelled at. We need to take full advantage of that behavioural software. The words spoken don’t exist in a vacuum. They construct our sense of the speaker’s purpose, values, beliefs, motivation and capability.

Hearing is not the same as listening. Being aware isn’t the same as being informed.

See What is Possible

Expand your network. Ask peers to share their perception of what excites, concerns and demotivates employees within their sphere of influence. This isn’t simply making the most of a casual conversation. Think of the outcome as invaluable business intelligence.

Meanwhile, the colleagues that we can learn from are not defined by those we know best. Someone who has recently joined the organisation, for example, is an invaluable source. They have a nuanced naïveté, an amplified awareness, an intuitive insight. They see with new eyes. In doing so they reveal what is hidden in plain sight.

As a result, they can bring not just a fresh perspective but, as often as not, a new way to see what is possible. But, we have to know how to listen.

Open New Pathways

Niels Bohr, the legendary pre WWII scientist, was of a mind that the key to scientific breaking lay in the power of paradox. Let me introduce a paradox. We invariably gain most about what’s really going on by listening to those who are most unlike us. And yet, the people we exclude from our constituency are often those with whom we lack a natural affinity. We tend to avoid those who make our life difficult, those who make us angry, those who ask the questions that make us uncomfortable.

To be a leader is to actively seek out those who disagree with you. It is to make the first call of the day – both video and voice preferred – to the person you least want to talk to. It is to listen hardest to the individual on the team who frustrates you the most. Personal breakthroughs happen when we afford others the opportunity to challenge our way of thinking.

When we listen less, we become more set in our ways. When we listen more, we open new pathways.

Listening With Purpose

Listening with purpose, pulling back the veil that cloaks intent, tending the grapevine may be “in the moment” but it should not be limited to the moment.

“Learning isn’t reading something. That’s knowledge. Learning isn’t found in instruction. That’s knowhow. Discussion doesn’t generate learning. That’s insight. We learn – and can only learn – when we translate knowledge, know-how and/or insight into action.”

That is to say when, through repetition, we establish positive habits. A positive listening habit has to respect both content and context.

Consider, for example, how important good listening habits are to each step in the following problem-solving discussion.

Step one: Mindset. Start as you mean to go on. Read the room. Quell the mind, push aside distraction, be in the moment.

Step two: Draw out the issue. Establish psychological safety. Look for the opportunity to catch people doing it right. Reinforce positive behaviour. Let others define/outline the issue first. Give the speaker(s) your FULL attention. Let go of knowing. Don’t get trapped by first impressions or past assumptions. Have a beginner’s mind. Engage your curiosity gene. Listen to the space between the words. Hear what isn’t said. Explore what’s possible. Encourage people to paint outside the lines. Question to fully understand. Silence is often the best question of all. Introduce your concerns, ideas, untapped opportunities and/or the needs of other constituencies into the conversation.

Step three: Agreement. Summarise the conversation as it relates to the immediate challenge. Establish/agree the way forward – not how to fix what is past.

Step four: Tactical commitment. Validate commitment to the immediate next steps.

Step five: Risk. Explore the issue with the extended future in mind. Consider longer term, unintended consequences of the agreed immediate actions.

Step six: Strategic commitment. Agree on and validate commitment to the longer term actions.

Step seven: Collaboration. Ensure that all those involved move forward together – both tactically and strategically.

Think about the many ways a leader’s approach to problem solving affects the grapevine. Recognise how essential listening is at each step. Not helpful or beneficial. Essential! If you don’t listen you can’t learn. If you don’t learn, what lies ahead is destined to be but more of what is past.

This article is an extract from “If Ever There Was a Time to Listen – It’s Now!“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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