Leaders who listen – Part 2
One of my most profound professional development experiences involved being introduced to active listening techniques many years ago.
As so many had discovered before me, and since, ed psych courses during teacher training offered meagre preparation for encounters with the vast range of mental and emotional states adolescent students displayed. Real-world engagement with young people who were distressed, confused, angry, or otherwise at the end of their tether, meant that the ‘seeds’ sown during the PD session fell on fertile ground.
I have employed the insights into listening skills provided by the psychologist who led that training session to enhance engagement and to help various students, colleagues, mentees, family members, and others. Some years after my introduction to active listening, I found Stephen Covey’s description of the main types or styles of listening offered strong support for the empathic approach.
The intention to listen from the other party’s frame of reference makes a big difference, as we work to reduce our inclination to listen from our own frame. Some of the situations in which active listening can be beneficial include:
- when empathising, in the sharing of a problem or pain
- when reframing so that a catastrophe de-escalates, by degrees, and so becomes a ‘mere’ challenge to be dealt with
- when gently probing as to the underlying causes or triggers for a situation, so that insights are gained into a dynamic or a pattern that has not previously been recognised
- when seeking to understand the (negotiating) position of an adversary or potential party to a contractual relationship
- when participating in deliberative processes where multiple points of view need to be taken into account in order to make a decision that has majority or consensus support
The ten principles of effective listening offered by the Skills You Need website provide guidance that should improve your communications and engagement with other people in all settings.
Listening, reflecting, then reframing
Reflection and reframing techniques used in counseling can also be employed in supporting colleagues experiencing stress, as well as various other tense situations. This initially involves reflecting back to the colleague what you hear them saying, often using many of the same words they used.
If you are trying to defuse an emotional issue or a heated argument, acknowledging the validity of their perspective is an important first step. As the conversation unfolds, lifting them up a ‘notch’ to a more neutral or positive frame of mind can often be achieved by calibrating the words used so that they are similar to, but less charged, than the original ‘script’.
A typology of listening
Coaching firm BetterUp has published insightful articles on the importance of listening as a leader. Two such articles define various types or modes of (good and bad) listening, that may be employed by us all. The chart above (and in the header image) adapts and combines the types identified in those articles (and some other sources) into a consolidated ‘typology’, that expands on the five listening modes identified by Covey, to a total of twelve.
Active listening in meetings
Of the various types of listening identified in the chart above, Deliberative Listening perhaps comes closest to what directors need to be doing when attending board meetings. Unlike most other types of listening, the focus is not so much on your attentiveness to any one speaker, but rather on the accumulation of arguments for or against the proposal before the meeting (or perhaps the one that needs to be offered to the meeting). Those arguments will come from multiple sources, including written and graphic materials.
An alternative set of guidelines for effective listening, targeted at those participating in meetings, is offered below.
Those wanting to keep track of the arguments for and against an initiative could use Benjamin Franklin’s pros and cons lists, with each argument being assigned a probability and importance rating and an overall weighting, allowing comparison of aggregate scores on each side of the ledger. This approach would require the listener to use a score sheet. (I confess that in over four decades of attending board meetings, I don’t recall ever seeing a director do this during a meeting.)
Where the issue is at the heart of an advocacy campaign, or of special strategic significance, it may be worth spending more time mapping all of the arguments about the issue, then attributing scores, both for the validity of each and for the strength of underlying evidence supporting each argument. This would require a special ‘workshop’ style discussion, as it is too time-consuming for use during a normal board meeting.
More often than not, directors vote based on their response to the rhetoric they hear. They rely on listening to help them decide what makes sense, and which of a number of positions they are most convinced of. Hopefully, when they do, they have listened from more frames of reference than their own.