Leaders Need to Listen to Understand

I received a notice from Facebook recently that I had been “tagged” in a comment posted by a young mom. Now, I don’t really understand what that means or how it is accomplished. When I read the post, it took me back to when I was a teenager. When I was 16, I remember getting into discussions with my father about how I neglected keeping my room clean and organized. As most teenage boys, I had a difficult time understanding the expectations my father had of me. When we got into heated discussions about my room, I believed that my father wasn’t really interested in listening to my excuses.

I remember during one rather heated conversation I told my father that he heard the words I was speaking, but he really didn’t hear what I was saying. I remember his response like it was yesterday. He said, “What the hell are you talking about?” I wouldn’t understand his comment or the look on his face that day until I became a parent, raising teenagers of my own. When I think about that experience I had at 16, I was asking my father to listen to me to understand, not to respond. Listen to understand is one of the servant leadership behaviors we teach leaders today.

Here is the post that generated my walk down memory lane. It was written by a mother raising two boys. She shares their request to her.

“Just another example of #servantleadership in parenting “I need you to LISTEN TO UNDERSTAND, not listen to respond.”

I wish I had that insight and knowledge when I was parenting my two teenagers. I would imagine they would agree with me on this. I could have been a better father.

I learned through my own servant leadership training in 2006 that listening is actually a form of love. When leaders really care about those who follow them, they show it through the art of listening, really listening to understand. Here is my challenge to all the leaders reading this today. Use these few steps to show you really care about those around you.

  1. Create a safe environment where honest and open communication can take place. When I worked at Disneyland, I would meet with employees in the park for their reviews. In the winter when the park was closed, we would walk out into the park, sit on a bench and discuss their annual review with them. I found that we had some great conversations about the team and individual performance in that safe environment. My favorite spot was at the end of Main Street USA just in front of Cinderella’s Castle. Today, I use a living room type setting in my office with couches and coffee table. At times we meet out on the break patio, or at the local Starbucks.
  2. Turn off your electronic devices. You can do it; the world will survive without you being “connected” for 30 minutes. I challenge you. The next one on one meeting you have with someone on your staff, leave your electronic devices on your desk. Don’t take it to your meeting. It’s ok, give it a try.
  3. When you are working on a problem that exists in your group, ask these two questions until you have a good understanding of how the other person is feeling. Ask “tell me more” and then sit back and listen. Follow that question with “help me understand.”
  4. When you ask these questions, make sure you sit back, zip your mouth closed and don’t speak until the other person is done.
  5. Keep your focus on what the other person is saying. Don’t be thinking about your response while the other person is still talking.
  6. Tell the other person what you heard and ask for confirmation. If there is still a misunderstanding, start the process all over with “tell me more” and “help me understand.”
  7. Stay committed to this process until the other person feels that you have actually worked to listen to understand what they are saying.

I remember how I felt at 16 when my father heard the words I spoke, but really didn’t take the time to understand what I was trying to tell him.

Take the lead from the young parent that posted on Facebook. Listen to understand, not to reply.

Art Barter is CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute (SLI), an organization that helps people and organizations put servant leadership into practice, through hands-on training, coaching, events, publications and other programs.


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