As leaders, we should have the ability to listen, so we can discern. But do we listen?
I conduct one-to-one chat sessions with my colleagues. These sessions are ways for me to find out more about them, hear their concerns and also give them the chance to know me.
One teacher I spoke with shared a bit of her career history with me. This teacher worked hard in her previous school, and was enthusiastic about her work. However, one thing she couldn’t quite do comfortably in her previous school is to voice her thoughts to the leaders.
She explained that whenever she gave her views, the leaders would acknowledged them, but brush her views aside. So after a number of attempts, this teacher felt she might as well keep her views to herself.
I told her to have courage and speak up during meetings. As long as views are constructive, and can aid to push the discussion forward, it will be fine.
A few months passed. I noticed the teacher would try to put her views across in meetings I am present. Those moments were far and few in between though.
Then came that meeting.
An item was raised for discussion. I took it up, and after several suggestions given by different individuals, I asked for one specific recommendation to put this in action.
This teacher mustered her courage, and made a recommendation.
I spoke at length. I told a story linked to the teacher’s recommendation, and how the protagonist in that story made me upset.
I spoke of how I didn’t feel good about the incident, how I felt I was forced into a corner by that protagonist.
I realised a while later that I was getting agitated and was deviating from the discussion topic. So I stopped the meeting and called for a break.
The rest of the meeting went by. We finished the items on the agenda, and called it a day.
The next day, the teacher came into my office, wanting to speak with me.
She sat down, and told me how she felt in the meeting the day before. In short, she felt distraught.
She was very upset I had reacted when she made that suggestion. She felt she had touched a raw nerve in me when that incident occurred. She felt I was scolding her for making that recommendation. She felt targeted during that session.
In short, she felt she was shut down by another school leader. Again.
This time, I listened with horror. I knew I was upset at the meeting. I knew I was angry then. My target of anger however was not her. My target was the protagonist in the story I told the audience.
But I never knew the emotions I felt had somehow transferred to her. If she hadn’t plucked the courage to approach me, I would never have known her side of the story.
I apologized, because I did not realise my anger had sparked unpleasant memories in her. Memories which I unknowingly trigger.
I really listened after this. Each time I have a meeting where this teacher is present, I will try and remind myself of this teacher’s past, and how my responses or words must not rekindle her unpleasant memories.
I also chose to listen carefully to everyone else after this. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. Nevertheless, I still try.
What lessons did I draw from this?
1. Listen to Understand
I learnt to listen more, after this episode. Not just listen to collect data, but listen to understand.
The human mind is a wonderful object. You can listen to collect data, and you can choose to store the data away without turning it into information.
But that also means you did not process what you heard.
When we fail to process what we heard, it means we were not engaged by our audience. When that happens, we fail to understand our audience. Imagine how your audience would feel if they know you were disengaged. What will subsequent engagements with your audience be like?
I listened to my teacher, but not enough to register in my mind how I should be understanding to her feelings when the need arises.
2. Listen to Gain Followership
You may have heard the saying, “we are born with one mouth and a pair of ears”. Basically we are supposed to do more listening than speaking.
Listening is important in leadership. If we do not listen to understand a person, we would have failed to understand the people we are supposed to lead. If we cannot understand them, we risk having people walk away from our leadership.
Would we have any followers left, if we do not listen actively? We cannot call ourselves a leader if we do not have followers.
One good outcome from this episode is that my teacher took the courage to share how she felt after that meeting. Otherwise, I would be in the dark about it. To honour her courage, I have to listen more intently to people. I have to be a leader she would want to follow.
3. Listen to Discern
There is a lot of noises around us. We live in a complex world where information comes from all directions, and where we get distortions, rumours, untruths, misinformation and smears (DRUMS) from various sources.
We can pick up a lot of signals just by listening. The important thing is to discern what we listened, and tap on the information we process from listening, when we need it.
That was what I did not do with my teacher. I failed to connect what she shared earlier with the setting in the meeting. I failed to check my emotions while telling the story. I brought in my personal emotions of the past into the present, sending mixed signals to the teacher (and the audience), and conflating the issue in the process.
Discernment requires us to remain in a calm and observant state so we can filter and sieve out the chaff from the wheat. This helps us stay focused.
Listening is an art, just as speaking is an art. You may feel you are a good listener today, but until you are put to the test, you may never know.
Are you listening?
How can the art of listening help you as a leader? How do you develop your listening skills further? I would love to hear your stories, if you wish to share with me.
I have written another similar post on my leadership experiences. You can read it here: How I Failed …