27 Apr 2010

Choosing the Right Leadership Listening Tool

Posted by paulandrew

As a leader, there is a time to hang back and just listen, and there is a time to give structure and guidance to the speaker. Quite simply, if you make an intentional choice about which style to bring to a given context, your employees will feel better listened to, and you’ll make the best use of everyone’s time. But if you unintentionally “just listen” or “just guide” then you’ll run into trouble.

I recently saw the pitfalls of an unintentional listening strategy when I was observing a skilled listener in a business situation. “Bill” studied Supportive Listening with us a couple of years ago and since then has made great efforts to apply the skills to leading his business. But when I observed him using Supportive Listening at the wrong time in a business interaction, I realized that I needed to be more clear about when to use—and not use—Supportive Listening.

Let me explain. Supportive Listening is designed for “third-person” listening. Let’s say that my neighbor, “Fred,” is frustrated with his boss and wants to talk to somebody about it. In that case I can be that calm and neutral third party, I can do a good job of being present for my neighbor and just listening to what he’s going through. I don’t interrupt, I don’t guide, I’m just there on the outside, as the “third person.” Sounds good so far, right?

Now here’s the twist, which I observed in the meeting last month. What if I’m Fred’s boss, and Fred’s complaint is about me? And he is going on and on, jumping rapidly from one complaint to the next, with no space for me to interact? Do I just remain silent indefinitely and keep listening (and listening, and listening), even when I can no longer keep track of the issues? This is what I observed Bill doing in the meeting last month with one of his senior managers. It didn’t go well.

In the situation where an employee is complaining to a boss, Supportive Listening is a good fit for the first couple of minutes of the conversation. It’s important for the boss to clearly hear what the employee is saying, and to confirm that he understands the points he’s making. But at some point, if the employee is flailing, there’s no airspace to check for understanding, and the boss is just not able to track all of the different issues, just listening reaches it’s limit.

If the boss just can’t follow along any more, he has a responsibility to interrupt as needed, slow the conversation down, check for understanding, and when appropriate, share opinions and decisions on an issue by issue basis. Otherwise his efforts to be a patient listener will have the opposite of the intended effect—the employee won’t get answers to his concerns, plus he’ll get a sense that he’s *not* being heard.

The key is to see how different third-person listening is from first-person listening. In third-person listening, where the problem doesn’t involve you, it’s very reasonable to let the speaker guide the direction and pace, and just focus on being present and connected. As the listener, you don’t need to come up with any answers, nor do you need to make anything happen. You’re just there.

But in first-person listening, especially as a leader, the expectations are very different. The leader needs to interact, and thus needs help provide enough structure for a successful conversation. What starts as a listening conversation often *does* need to segue into a real two-way exchange. In short, it’s a different creature than third-person listening, which can work as a mostly one-way conversation.

So my point is this—to be a skillful leader, be intentional about choosing the right communication tool for current situation.

* Listening to a friend talk about an issue with his boss? Supportive Listening.

* Listening to an employee talk to me about an issue with *me?* Start with Supportive Listening, and then segue into a more interactive, problem solving discussion. Choose the right tool for the right moment.

— Paul

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