4 Ways Leaders Don’t Really Listen

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(A version of this post originally appeared on CU Insight.)

As the magical line from The Princess Bride goes, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.

And our teammates? They may not mean what we think they mean either.

Or what we’re assuming they mean.

Or what we’d like them to mean so that it would make it easier for our position in a discussion to appear to be better than theirs.

Of course this all becomes a bit uncomfortable if I’m the only one guilty of these things, but carry on we shall.

There seems to be at least four basic ways we “listen” (I’m doing big air quotes here), but don’t really listen. We’re…

1.    Ignoring

Maybe we’re checking our email, or engaged in a heated debate regarding the superiority of name-brand Pop Tarts over their off-brand counterparts, or even deciding whether or not to pursue our lifelong dream of becoming a professional kazoo orchestra conductor; but whatever it is that we’re doing, we’re doing it while another human is there talking to us. We don’t have a clue what that person is talking about because we’re ignoring them.

2.    Pretending

We nod in agreement while that person is talking, and it’s a very well-timed nod of course. We maintain periods of eye contact for as long as the other person does, but as soon as they break eye contact, it’s back to our previous distractions. It could even take the form of us rehearsing in our minds how we’re going to respond to the very thought that’s not yet been entirely expressed by the other person. A strategically placed utterance of “hmm…” never hurts. Are we really listening to people?

3.    Controlling

This one’s tricky because we can convince ourselves that we’re doing our part as leaders if we’re simply sitting there paying attention and not interrupting while someone is talking. The truth is that we can potentially be controlling and manipulative with or without saying a word. People are influenced by other people’s gestures, facial expressions, body language, breathing patterns, audible noises, and so on in addition to their words. We can make people feel inadequate, or like they need to soften their message, or even like they must wholly acquiesce to our every wish if we’re not careful; because the folks with whom we’re speaking are either consciously or subconsciously interpreting all of that stuff.

The scary truth is that some of us are probably controlling without even realizing it. The scarier truth is that some of us are probably controlling intentionally.

 4.    Projecting

An easy way to get a handle on understanding projecting and the resulting frustration it can cause would be to remind yourself of almost any recent presidential debate. Projecting – be it consciously or subconsciously – is a way of life for many politicians, especially in a debate scenario.

Politician A will be prattling on about this or that when suddenly Politician B will enter into the dialogue, finishing Politician A’s thought the way he/she (Politician B) thinks it goes or wants it to go; following which Politician B is so kind as to offer a preemptive response to the argument that he/she partially projected. Many straw men were born this way. (Darn you, Lady Gaga.)

So what’s the point? Listening isn’t as simple and easy as we think it is, and we may not be listening as often or as well as we think we are. Some refer to listening as an art, and if we think of it that way, doing it extremely well is going to take enormous amounts of practice, experience, humility, feedback, and self-awareness. Looking in the mirror is the first and most difficult step.

4 thoughts on “4 Ways Leaders Don’t Really Listen

  • Matt,

    Another great post. The best leaders are the best listeners. The more you connect, the better you lead. And the better you listen, the better you connect. In today’s hyper-tech world we are incredibly distracted. Your employees know if you are engaging with them or thinking about something else. A good leaders puts those distractions aside.

    Mark

  • Such an important post.

    So easy to get caught up in what we have to do later and forget to focus on the present moment.

    People are instinctively turned off by that and it really gets in the way of building genuine relationships.

    -Jake

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