I love this example in a new book I’ve been reading called 'Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence' by co-authors Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins ...
In the book the authors say, "She wasn't surprised to be accused of 'going deaf' because there were times when she wasn't listening at all: she was thinking about the next meeting she was going to".
Fewer of us admit to having actually been a boss like that. This highly insightful book is peppered with examples taken from the authors' extensive personal practice working with executives to hold the attention and influence their audience, be it one person or a packed conference room. They call it "developing your leadership presence by finding your signature voice".
In this blog post, I've shared with you this small nugget of 7 or 8 pages in a book of over 200 pages packed full of practical help. I chose it because it sat neatly as a topic in its own right as well as relating to the rest of the book,
Also, it looked at that key skill of listening through a new lens for me. Pulling together and reinforcing the deeper listening that takes place in a skilled coaching session. What they call the "three levels of listening", each level going psychologically deeper than the one before.
Most leaders know (unlike the example quotes above) that we need to listen. Many of us have been taught or realise that we need to let the speaker know we are focused and hearing what they are saying. We maintain eye contact, give signs of affirmation like nodding or vocal grunts of encouragement. We repeat back what they have said to ensure we have understood.
The problem comes if you stop at this surface listening. As the authors point out, there is a world of difference between acknowledging you heard the message and signalling that you agree with it. Many leaders stop at this level and the speaker, despite all the head-nodding, either think you agree or are not "really getting it" and repeat their message or go away feeling you "weren't really listening". You need to delve deeper.
What Su and Wilkins call 'cutting through the clutter' of what's being said and focusing on what matters. Looking for the underlying issues being said. What are the implications? What are the key issues? This is when the listening becomes a dialogue as you pick up key phrases and context in what they are saying and have to ask insightful questions. This should help to clear away some of the assumptions you have on the speaker's real agenda.
This deepest level helps you uncover the true agenda. Leaders skilled at this sense the emotions behind what the person is saying, taking in the non-verbal cues as well as the words. The skill comes in noticing changes in energy, body posture, flushing as well as tone, pace and agitation when touching on certain points in the conversation or presentation. These are the points that really matter to the other person. If you acknowledge them and get the person to expand at that level they will truly believe they have been heard even if you don't agree.
I'll leave you with a quote from their book with an outsider coming in to introduce change and the impact it had on the local team. "While Robin has the right intention he talks to us like we're on Wall Street. This isn't Wall Street, it's Ohio ... we care less about the financial reward than he seems to think and he keeps alienating by leading with it every time he talks."
One of the things I really liked about this book is each section has a potted case study, obviously from the authors' own client base, the ambitious corporate executive. This gives clarity and places their suggested interventions firmly in the real world.
However, the issues and motivation to own the room applies equally to my clients who have left those high-pressure roles for their own consultancy. The need to step into an organisation where you are the outsider and quickly establish credibility and empathy can make or break a project. Emotion-based listening is a must
Equally, the need to listen and pick up conflict between cultures, such as Wall Street vs Ohio, is highly relevant to the new consultant embarking on consultancy in the very different world of the Small business owner!
My Tip for you this week is that this book should be a must for your bookshelf to constantly dip into when the individual or team in front of you are just not getting it.
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