The Leadership Series | #3 ‘A Good Leader is a Great Listener’

Great leaders make people feel important. How do you make people feel that they matter? You listen to them. Not ‘hear’ them, but ‘listen’ to them. This makes people feel that they matter, that what they say is relevant and that they play an important role in your team or in your life.

Let’s look at some examples from our daily lives.

Ajay (the one who desires to express himself): “Hey I am thinking of buying a car”.

Mona : “Oh my God! I was thinking of this just the other day. You should contact my cousin he is a car dealer. He will get you a great discount. [Blah Blah Blah]”.

Ajay: [feels deflated].

Or take another example

Ajay: “Hey I heard there is a new restaurant in town that I want to try. Its called The Village. And ..”

Mona: “You have no idea. I have always been wanting to go there. In fact my friend Kajal went there last Friday and loved it. It is supposed to have the best Punjabi food in town. But this is nothing compared to The Home. That’s my absolute favorite restaurant. It has…. [Blah Blah Blah]”.

So what’s happening here? Mona is using Ajay’s words as triggers. She takes them and uses them to go on her own mental trip. She uses his words as an excuse to express her own story. Notice how the focus of the conversation shifts back to Mona, no matter what Ajay says. This is known as Conversational Narcissism. This happens, as I said earlier, because Mona is caught up in her own thoughts in her head. She is simply not available to Ajay to be a good listener. She is coming into the conversation from a space of reacting and responding, but not from a space of relating to Ajay. She is not seeking to understand what he is trying to say. She is only interested in his content and trying to find a connection to her own life.

All of us do this sometimes when we are very excited or we are desperate to share something. This is the basis of spontaneous and free-flowing communication. However, when this becomes the norm as opposed to exceptions, the other is left feeling un-heard and unwanted. When one person constantly ‘captures’ the conversation, it leaves others feeling deflated and useless.

Leaders are especially guilty of this. Leaders are told to be bold – even brash sometimes, to think quick, to dominate the conversation so that they appear strong, capable. This is a very western / modern style of leadership. While this may pay rich dividends in garnering attention from others, fault lines start appearing in the long run, because people will start abandoning such leaders. Great leaders make people feel they are heard – even one’s dissidents. Look at this clip and you know why Obama is such a great leader.

Let’s look at how Mona could have been a better listener? Here is the conversation once again.

Conversation #1

Ajay: “Hey I am thinking of buying a car”.

Mona [feels the urge to blurt out what she has in mind, but realizes that this is important to Ajay]: “Hey that’s wonderful. Which car are you thinking of buying?”

Ajay: “I’m actually thinking of getting an electric car! Maybe the new Tata Tiago.”

Mona: “Electric! Thats brilliant! You would be the first person I know to get an electric. What made you go electric?”

Ajay: “Well, you know how I’ve always cared for the environment and as someone working in this field, I thought it apt to buy an electric. I’m actually really excited to buy this, although I need to install a charger at home. I don’t know how to go about it”.

Mona: “You know what? My cousin is a dealer in Tata cars. I can ask him and you guys should connect! Its so funny, I was thinking of getting a car too. Maybe, we can go and visit him?”

Ajay: “That sounds perfect! Lets go this Saturday!”

The difference between the two styles is fairly obvious. The second conversation, was more balanced. It consisted of an equal exchange of energies. Note that Mona was still excited (“Electric!”) and was not distant or cold or fake. It’s just that she did not “steal the conversational thunder” from Ajay”.

Respect the person and then their message

How can we all start becoming better at listening and at making balanced conversation in general? Respect the person and then their message. Remember that you have somebody very precious in front of you. They might be your friend, or your team mate at work. Whoever it is, value them. They may be absolutely wrong, but they have their story too. Respecting this and relating to them is the fundamental aspect of being a good communicator. And this can only happen when we get into the habit of listening to ourselves – our feelings, our fears, our secrets, our happy side and dark side. When we get into the habit of listening deeply to ourselves, we gain the ability to listen to others, to be fully present with others. We saw in the first post of this leadership series that great leaders are deeply connected to themselves. Great listening abilities come from being able to connect and be with yourself.

It’s helpful to know the three R’s of listening.

  1. Listen to react and respond : Here the listener is using the others words to react and respond. Depending upon the force of the participants, it can either turn into a shouting match (if both are aggressive) or it can turn into a monologue (when one of the participants is passive). Here the listener is much more interested in the content of the message rather than the speaker. And not the motivation of why he or she is saying this. It isn’t that one must not focus on the content. The content is important. But just remember that there is a speaker behind that too. [Note : Mona was guilty of this]
  2. Listen to resolve: Here the listener is trying to solve the other’s problem. The minute someone expresses a problem, you want to resolve it. Here again, the speaker feels deflated because his or her intention of expressing was to bring out the suppressed energy. Most people are not looking for a solution – they just want to be listened to. Hold back on giving advice and solutions until asked for. Or at least, make the other feel heard and only then provide solutions when you notice the energy level in the other has changed.
  3. Listen to relate: This is the basis of empathetic listening. Here you are just present with the other. It’s not that you are like a blank wall – No! Here you ‘feel’ the pain or the excitement or the normal expression of what the other is feeling at that moment. Here the content is secondary, but the person takes importance. In this type of listening, you “are” with the other 100% – not judging, not solving, but augmenting the conversation, asking questions so that the speaker starts reflecting and begins to understand things that he or she hadn’t thought of before. You are asking questions to truly understand the other person.

Try these techniques in your teams and in your personal lives. Let me know if they help you connect to people much more deeply. Good luck!

Humayun’s Tomb. Delhi. 2019.

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