One of the fundamentals of leadership involves communication – it’s one of the core principles of working with people, no matter how underrated it may be. However, how often is “communication” reduced to nothing but spoken words?
Active listening – a core tool of any coach, and increasingly recognised as valuable in leadership. It’s one of the core areas of interest for organisations like the ILM.
How many times have you, a colleague or someone you know said something like:
“It’s so frustrating! I participate in meetings, suggest ideas – yet it’s others who get the credit! How am I meant to get anywhere if I am so constantly overlooked?”
That was the situation when I began working with Ben (as always, names a changed to protect the superheroes among us). He was keen for promotion – part of that was getting his potential recognised and delivering. He would speak out at any meeting, raise his ideas, fight to be first and heard.
Of course, several things happened as a result of this – consequences quite against his intention:
Participants lost their train of thought – not a great impression on your boss or other stakeholders present. It isn’t enjoyable for the best of us – and not the best impact.
Ben was keeping his mind on what he was going to say. Sounds natural, right? But by doing this, he was failing to internalise what was being told by those around him. Not only is this disrespectful towards colleagues, but mean that his ideas, contributions, and participation were shallow – based on surface information.
Leaps were made to articulation before they made it through formulation. When others, who were fully present and active-listening, they could combine a fuller understanding with logic and Ben’s ideas to articulate them more thoroughly.
The issue here is Premature Articulation! Not a rare problem – but one of consequence. It’s a simple matter to spot but harder to fix. There’s an element of mindfulness required (addressed in all our leadership coaching) to ensure you’re aware of what’s happening and when. Then practice, practice, practice – turn the idea into behaviour and the behaviour into a habit.
With Ben, we talked through how he could go about managing the problem. I asked if he felt confident to make a conscious decision to act differently in the next week’s meetings, even if it felt like going against his career goals.
We talked through ways he could remain quiet, to listen carefully and only contribute when his opinion was expressly requested.
Beyond this, we looked at what he should do to help focus his attention in positive ways when he felt inclined towards speaking out. Not just to keep his mouth shut, but to help him develop his leadership abilities.
The first solution tied to active listening was observation! With each stakeholder present, Ben would note their posture and body language, tone of voice, facial expression, movements and so on, to combine that with the words they said. These actions lead to a greater understanding of almost any situation.
Now, we’re not trying to turn him into The Mentalist here; there’s no twitch of the 3rd hair from the top of his left eyebrow which proves his mother’s gardener killed the postman! These observation techniques were to help him stay more present, but in a manner which developed him as a leader. (Other methods I’ve seen in the past include counting a certain number of colours in the room, adding up everything circular, or similar. Such ideas can help younger people stay more present but don’t contribute to leadership success.)
Together, a couple of other strategies were put in place, to help build on the observation, listening, ordering thoughts, and recording ideas.
We agreed that he could then only offer ideas after enough thought, consideration, logic, observation and structure were present. Often, this meant following up after a meeting – not an ideal business practise, granted, but elegant as a short-term development tool.
The Result of Ben’s Work
The result was outstanding. Ben started to feel more control in his work and more positive about his value and position in the company. He felt his work was being recognised and well appreciated.
Overall, Ben found meetings had become less stressful and less frantic. There was no running about or rush to contribute. No more performance anxiety, no more premature articulation – it took some time and practise, but valuable!
How much do you contribute vs listen?