Leaders are communicators. They are responsible not only for communicating information outbound but for listening to information inbound. Intentional leaders need to perfect the skill of intentional listening.
Has this ever happened to you?
You’re listening to one-half of a long-time couple tell a story. One says, “Well, we were in Las Vegas…”
“No, dear, it was Lake Tahoe.”
“No, it was Vegas. I remember it well because we stayed at the hotel we like there.”
“Oh, never mind. Tell your story.”
“So we sat down to dinner. We wait and waited…at least 20 minutes.”
“No, dear, we waited 35 minutes.”
“Okay, whatever, 35 minutes then, and the waiter finally came to take our order.”
“He asked us if we would like a drink.”
“It was a she. SHE asked us…”
…And on it goes. After all the interruptions, your mind has drifted, and you miss the story entirely. After a while, you realize it doesn’t matter. These two are locked in some bizarre emotional dance that years of practice developed to perfection. The problem is the dance is deadly, not only for stories but also for relationships.
It’s Not Just Couples
I’ve seen this happen not only with many couples I’ve encountered but also in organizations at every level, e.g., in teams between peers or a manager and direct report, and between line staff. What’s happening? Everyone is talking, and no one is listening, and no one understands anything or anyone.
Fixing this means fixing a person’s awareness (or lack thereof). Take my example above. If no one has pointed out to the couple (or to two teammates) that they correct each other for no significant reason, then why would they change? Who cares whether it was 20 or 35 minutes or whether the waiter was male or female? No one!
Occasionally I’ll catch myself interrupting a story my husband is telling, correcting him on a fact that makes no difference. Whenever I notice myself doing it (awareness) I stop. It is not my intention to embarrass him or interrupt his story with my fixation on complete accuracy (or at least my version of it).
Leaders need to be aware of their behavior when a member of the team has the floor. By interrupting them or talking over them, leaders send the message they aren’t interested in listening. Furthermore, they aren’t giving team members the right opportunity to communicate. They also miss a chance to observe that person communicate with others and see what ideas they have to offer the mission of the organization.
Intentional leadership requires us to be Intentional listeners as well. Both outbound and inbound communication skills are critical to meaning. If you don’t know where the other person stands now, how on earth are you going to direct them to stand where you want them to in time? Recognize your behavior for what it is, an obstacle to progress, to meeting your goal, and to effective communication—and change it.