active listening
Corporate Culture

Motorcycles, Red Lights, and What?

Terri Jensen
Terri Jensen
Holmes Murphy Corporate

I live at the corner of a very busy intersection in downtown Des Moines. Motorcyclists sit at the red light just below my windows and rev their engine as they anticipate leaping into motion when the light turns green. It’s loud and frequent and many would find it downright obnoxious. I, on the other hand, barely notice it. It’s simply background noise in my personal piece of paradise. I’ve learned to tune out what I don’t want to hear.

While this is a good thing at home, I sometimes worry it has also become a habit at work. Has my employees’ feedback become background noise? Am I not fully hearing a client’s concern and setting it aside? Are we missing a great opportunity because I wasn’t engaged enough to pick up on an outstanding idea? As leaders in an organization, are you asking yourself these questions? Listening to understand is sometimes a gap in a leader’s strengths, but it’s one of the most important qualities of a respected leader.

Stephen Covey once wrote, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” This is a thought-provoking statement. We should be attentive, focused, intentional, and collaborative in our conversations. Covey challenges us to put the other person’s thoughts or ideas before ours and to be open to change our minds. That old saying “two heads are better than one” only works if each person is able to compromise and grow. I believe there are three capabilities that differentiate listeners’ intent on understanding from those who want to reply.

First, active listeners fully engage in their conversations. As an example, if you’re sitting at your desk and a co-worker comes in, close your laptop or turn off your monitor, set everything else aside, and focus in on the person sitting across from you. Make them feel important and appreciated before they even speak, giving them the opportunity to lead the conversation. Nothing says “I don’t care about you” more than letting yourself be distracted by your surroundings. By staying focused on them, a richer conversation can develop.

Second, active listeners know when to just listen. Sometimes, people may not even want input; they simply need someone to listen as they process. Even if you have the answer as the discussion progresses, be patient while your co-worker works through to a conclusion. Ask some open-ended questions and watch them light up as they build confidence in their solution. This can be a growth opportunity for you as a leader and for your employee.

Finally, effective listeners listen for what’s not being said as much as what is. People can be hesitant to bring up a topic and instead talk around it. Or, they hover after a topic has been discussed. If you feel like there’s an elephant in the room, it’s probably there. One of the phrases “What else would you like to talk about?” or “You seem to have something else on your mind. How can I help?” may be just the key they need to let that elephant out.

Listening to understand is challenging. It’s often easier to listen to reply. Next time someone knocks on your door, rev up your engine and leap into motion by simply leaning forward, listening, and engaging in this important conversation.

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