Why listening is a leadership mindset, not a leadership skillset

By Heather Campbell

We all have those phrases that set our teeth on edge when we hear them. Right? One of my absolute ‘teeth-setting on edge’ ones is ‘You’ve got two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.’

This bugs me even more because people tend to say it in a tone that suggests it’s an amazing original insight rather than a hackneyed phrase that over-simplifies one of the most important attributes a leader can develop.

Some 30 years ago Stephen Covey coined the phrase ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’ as a reminder of the need to listen well. Half a century before that, Dale Carnegie advised us that listening well was one of the most effective things to do if we wanted to ‘Win Friends and Influence People’. And some 2000 years before that, Plutarch wrote a letter to his young student about listening well: the messages it contained are still relevant even though two millennia have passed since he shared his wisdom.

But we still don’t get listening right! Why? Because listening well challenges us at such a deep level. Listening well is way more complex than that teeth-on-edge, hackneyed phrase conveys.

By the way, I don’t even believe that listening well is accurately described as a skill. I believe that listening well is a mindset.

Here’s why.

1. Listening well means that we have to let go of our own worldview and step into the worldview of another person. It’s their worldview we need to understand, not ours.
2. Getting into someone else’s worldview means we have to step out of our worldview and even be willing to have it critiqued, criticised and challenged.
3. Having our worldview critiqued, criticised and challenged takes confidence and sometimes courage because we might have to be willing to accept that our worldview is (whisper it) less right than we thought.
4. Accepting that we are less right than we thought means letting of our need to protect our ego.
5. Letting go of our need to protect our ego challenges us at a deep level. Ultimately, despite our tendency to say ‘Good leaders admit they are wrong’ (another oversimplification that sets my teeth on edge), human beings have a deep need to be right because being right is a safe place.
6. Being in a safe place is a fundamental human driver.

Achieving all of this starts with our mindset, not with our skillset. And it certainly doesn’t start simply by talking half as much as we speak.

The good news is that every conversation gives us the chance to practise developing the mindset that helps us become more effective listeners. Becoming more effective listeners is a great achievement – because listening well is so challenging, we are always a work in progress on this one.

Here are three indicators that your listening might be just a tad under par.

1. You start to feel defensive when the other person is talking – this might show up as tension in your shoulders, gut or jaw, or the need to argue your case. When we get defensive, our mindset moves to protecting ourselves rather than staying open to others.
2. You jump into problem-solving mode. This is a sign that you are focussed on the solution rather than on understanding the person. The other individual might not want you to fix anything!
3. You judge whether or not the other person is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – if you are judging, you can be sure you are paying more attention to your worldview than to what the other person is trying to share with you.

Watch out of these indicators in your next conversation. Awareness is the first step in becoming more effective.

And, as always, observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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