Because it’s such a fundamental part of human interaction,  most of us assume that we must be excellent at listening. After all, we have been listening since we were children. We listen every day. And if we’re in positions of leadership, it’s often all day and every day that we listen. How could we practice something so often and be anything other than stellar at it?

Unfortunately, listening is one of those skills that is never actually taught to us, so most of us are actually quite practiced at using really bad habits. This blog post is all about listening, leadership and power.  I’ll explore some of what we know about listening and what effective listening is. I’ll share some research, and some of my own experience and story learning about this absolutely critical, often sorely neglected skillset.

I was well into my late 20s before I realised that I was a terrible listener. Specifically, I had a terrible habit of tuning out when people were telling me things that I did not want to hear. This showed up in meetings, and in all of my relationships. In particular, if I was feeling annoyed or resentful, but also if I just basically disagreed with what someone was saying, I would habitually switch off. This only became evident to me–wait for it–after over ten years of having meetings and adult relationships. (I’m embarrassed to write that now, but it’s true.)

In my early life, like many people, I had learned that tuning out was a non-disruptive way of dealing with my own discomfort—so, as an adult, when someone would say something that I found upsetting or uncomfortable, I would just zone out and daydream. It was a very passive aggressive way of listening, but it was quite an internal kind of passive aggression. (I later learned this is an extremely common pattern in women, or people socialised as female. But that’s another blog post.)

So here’s the funniest part–I thought no one noticed! I was so used to my pattern that I assumed nothing different was expected of me, and I assumed no one could tell the difference anyhow. Following a few embarrassing situations where my listening-not-listening really did not serve me well, I realised that I had do some work and become a better listener.

Listening is a crucial shaping skill in building healthy relationships and cultures. Our own practices around listening are extremely important, because they shape what information we are willing and able to take in. In my case, I was cutting myself off from crucial information. And that meant that I often made poorly-informed decisions, or felt completely blindsided and confused when shit hit the fan. Luckily, I was never in a significant-enough role of power for this to seriously harm anyone else. But it could have easily been otherwise. I imagine myself, with those skills, in a role where I was responsible for maintaining a civil and safe workplace. I would have been utterly ill-equipped, and would have had no idea about my incapacity. Learning the shape of own biases around listening–to whom do we tend to listen, and when, and why do we stop listening, or never start–is extremely important.

Zenger Folkman, a leadership consultancy based in Utah, have done some very interesting research around listening and leadership. They suggest that, instead of thinking of a listener as a sponge (absorbing information without much feedback), we need to think of a good listener as a trampoline (a source that helps the speaker organise and clarify her thoughts and emotions via providing constructive feedback).

So, what does a trampoline listener look like in practice? Zenger Folkman suggest the following:

  • Good listeners do more than silent nodding–they engage in dialogue about the ideas or problems;
  • Good listeners make the other person feel supported and safe to bring the issues to the table;
  • If they need to challenge the speaker, good listeners do this in a way that is not competitive, and that shows they are trying to help; and
  • Good listeners offer feedback at good moments.

Trampoline listeners recognize and value the speaker’s vulnerability. They understand intuitively that they need to match it with their own willingness to engage, or else the loop will shut down. Our ability to listen is actually quite indicative of other patterns of mutual influence. How we listen/don’t listen is a bit of a diagnostic test for how we use our power and allow others to use their power in relationship to us.

This is why good listening skills are practices of healthy power: because if we are really there, showing the person that we are willing to join with them, follow the thread of what they are experiencing and be affected by it, we are practicing a connectedness that is mutual. This reciprocity and relational balance—even if it’s not a 50/50 balance between peers, but is rather a 60/40 or a 70/30 between supervisor and supervised—produces psychological safety and a healthy ongoing accountability. It’s an antidote practice to unhealthy power. When people stop talking to you about problems, or say that you aren’t listening to them when they bring you issues, it is a serious indicator that the relational balance is heading out of whack, and you can bet your bottom dollar other accountabilities are dodgy too.

Everyone’s individual situation is different, but, for my part, I was a bad listener because I had yet to learn how to be comfortable with disagreement. I was very uncomfortable with other people’s negative emotions and there were stories and realities I simply did not feel equipped to hear. I associated tension with potential conflict and violence–as soon as I sensed it, I would become very uncomfortable and need to either make everything harmonious, leave or zone out. This happened in a matter of milliseconds! I wasn’t conscious of it at all. Even when I was trying very hard to listen, I was often saying, with my body and sometimes with my words, some version of “stop being upset or I will get the hell out of here, because I can’t handle that feeling”. Yet another layer was that my education had very clearly taught me that my “job” was to interpret a person’s words and then either agree or disagree, usually by poking holes in their ‘argument’. Again, these responses were very quick, almost automatic–I only started to see them when I slowed it way down.

Taken together, all of these things made me a pretty terrible listener. In retrospect, I’m sort of shocked that anyone ever talked to me about anything important! My problems didn’t originate out of disrespect to anyone else, but rather because of my own conditioning. I’m a much better listener now, although my old habits will resurface if I’m really overloaded with stress.

You might be able to recognise some of yourself in this story–you might not. But in either case, you can probably enhance your listening skills, and it will absolutely make you a better leader (and friend, and partner, and community member).

In transformational education, we approach skill development like this at several layers. Listening work needs to be done at several layers: the layers of voice, tonality, muscle tension and posture, as well as the words themselves. Like all things, it’s a matter of recognising what you’re currently doing (and why, if that matters to you) and then practicing better habits.

If you’re in Toronto in November of 2018, my colleague bk chan and I will be piloting some workshops that address leadership and power in the workplace. Listening skills will be one of the areas we address–you can learn more here.

If you’re not around and this is important to you, I commend you for that and I want you to know that you can still start to do this important work on your own. Later this week, I will post an exercise called My Listening Strengths, My Listening Weaknesses. It is designed to help you understand some of your own biases around listening, and help you figure out where you need to develop more skills. I hope it’s useful to you!

Thank you for reading and thank you for your engagement with this topic. #thisishowwemakeitbetter

(You can read Zenger Folkman’s research on listening in the Harvard Biz Review here. Also interesting is Harry Weger’s work on listening in the classroom.)