At some point during my career journey, and specifically after I had begun leading teams, it became important to me to have a well-balanced room. Didn’t matter if it was an internal meeting, client meeting, casual small group conversation, or standing around in a circle with someone peering in from outside. I was (and still am) exceedingly conscious of my surroundings and how people fit within the space: Who’s sitting where. How many people on each side of the table. How clean or cluttered is the space.
“Big deal,” you say, “That’s just being touchy-feely. Some kind of latent Feng Shui tendencies yearning to get out.” Actually, no. It’s a form of “listening.” Listening to the space you’re in, how it functions, how people feel in it, how and what it communicates. Indeed, it’s listening with all your senses, which we emphasize in our teaching and coaching at ThinqShift, but it is often overlooked or underrated as a leadership skill.
If I see your eyes averted, your neck tightening and you become quiet, it’s a pretty sure sign that you’re not comfortable and don’t feel safe. I can infer that our dialogue will be unproductive, at best, or highly negative in a worst case. But if I listen with all my senses and immediately “step out” of the content of our conversation, make it safe and then re-enter, I’ve earned trust and strengthened this relationship, just that fast!
What I find intriguing is that people in visual and performing arts may be THE most skilled when it comes to the actual art of listening and, therefore, a source of learning for those of us brought up and trained in more classic business environments.
But Let’s Start With Why Listening is So Important
At an organizational level, it impacts business results. I subscribe to the belief that listening and empathy are fiercely linked, so look no further than the annual Global Empathy Index for evidence of this. Among other findings, the index shows that empathy is more important to a successful business than it has ever been, correlating to growth, productivity, and earnings per employee.
At a personal level, it impacts your career results. A recent time-lagged study suggests that emotional intelligence “helps individuals to acquire the social capital needed to be successful in their careers,” and subsequently has a positive impact on salary levels. Want to know what an essential component of EI is? The ability to “effectively appraise the expression of emotion” in those around you, i.e. being able to “listen” with your senses. It’s worth noting the study also points out that EI is of “particular utility” at the beginning of a career—even starting in college—as an indicator of success at higher levels. In other words, the early bird catches the bigger worm.
Those are admirable and lofty aspirations but being a great, empathetic, multi-sensory listener also has very concrete and immediate impact on the things you’re doing now, every…single…day. These include:
Better hiring and casting
More effective and actionable feedback
Improved ability to influence
Developing products and services that matter
Greater accountability (hint: Adaptable leaders are able to increase their accountability 2x every 18 months, but this can’t happen unless you master the art of listening)
Thus, I’m back to three things we can learn and apply from true artists who are masters of the art of listening. Think of these as opportunities to improve your listening at the beginning, middle, and end of the continuum of conversation.
How to Practice the Art of Listening
Preparation will make you a better listener. But not the way you think. When the portrait photographer Platon is working with his subjects, he often has no more than 30 minutes to get “the” shot, so preparation is critical to achieving success. After all, we’re talking about the likes of Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mark Zuckerberg, and Serena Williams to name a few. His preparation is a means to a different end, though. It’s not the shot itself, but preparation to make him a better listener at the outset of those 30 minutes—to ask the right questions, look for the hidden cues, put his subject at ease, to use all his senses as an aperture—that will then allow him to get “the” shot. Too often we prepare for a pre-conceived, pre-determined outcome to our conversations and the Ladder of Inference takes over. Our existing beliefs and expectations filter everything we hear and we miss the richness and potential of what could be. In other words, we miss “the” shot because we’re only prepared to hear what aligns with or reinforces our pre-determined outcome. If you’re not convinced, I’d encourage you to watch this now. Done? Okay, what can you do differently? Be intentional about opening up the aperture. Stand in the other person’s shoes before the conversation starts. Consider what they want and need, and how they’re prone to think. Ask yourself when and where you’re most likely to get tripped up, distracted, disengaged. Then practice this everyday not just with the critical conversations but informal ones as well. Not just in a business setting but at home, out with friends, even incidental interactions with strangers. It takes “brain reps” to build this muscle.
Make people feel better after they’ve left than before they arrived. You cannot listen and communicate as effectively over digital platforms (email, text, messaging, phone, even VC) as you can face-to-face. In the Netflix documentary “Abstract: The Art of Design,” Ilse Crawford, renown interior designer, talks about the need to have x-ray vision, experiencing things in 3D in order to more effectively design for the human experience. This is a form of listening with your eyes, ears, nose, even fingers and toes, that wouldn’t be possible from afar. It’s no different when you’re communicating with clients and co-workers. Or as Crawford puts it, “We have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. We should use them in that proportion.” Let them do the talking; ask killer questions; and then ask more questions. Pay attention to what’s not being said as much as what is. Stop thinking about what you’re going to say—while missing 90% of what the other person said—and instead focus on things like pacing and pauses, inflection, pitch, posture, and comfort level. Interrogate reality, as Crawford suggests, before forming an opinion. You’ll be amazed at how much deeper a connection you’ll make when you prioritize the other person and, consequently, the value derived. Think of it as building credits in your Emotional Bank Account.
Listen harder when it hurts the most to do so. Be honest. It’s a helluva lot easier to listen with all your senses when what you’re “hearing” sounds, feels, looks, smells, and tastes good. When any or all of those are absent, too often so are we. The conditions most fraught for shutting down? 1) As we face or experience failure; and 2) When we’re on the receiving end of critical feedback. Too often, we hide, ignore, or shut down entirely during these times which means missing amazing opportunities to listen and learn. And then there’s Andy Goldsworthy, the British sculptor/environmentalist who creates site-specific “land art” situated in mostly natural settings using leaves, twigs, stone, ice, rain, feathers, and wind, among others. The environment and his materials of choice leave him vulnerable to unpredictability, requires constant compromise, and creates tensions impossible to anticipate. In other words, he faces failure and an organic form of negative feedback daily, sometimes hourly. But each time he creates and recreates his mercurial works of art, he understands the materials a little better and gains new inspiration from the experience. To him, failure is important and it has to hurt because it makes the experience of creating the work more poignant and significant and, most importantly, a catalyst for extracting learnings/lessons. None of this happens if he hides, ignores, or closes himself off from what the environment and the materials are telling him, a.k.a. if he stops listening. Are you doing the same? Failure and feedback are the gifts that keep on giving if you listen and learn, keep things in perspective, clarify when needed, accept reinforcement and redirection, accept responsibility for developing new solutions, and consider failure and feedback as a valuable part of your personal leadership journey.
Be honest with yourself. How often do you get together with a friend or colleague over coffee or lunch, have a cathartic conversation and near the end, as time is running out, you ask, “So, what’s going on in your world?” Probably happens more than you’d want to admit. Instead, try using every conversation as an opportunity to master the art of listening with all your senses by opening the aperture ahead of time; by using two eyes, two ears, and one mouth (in that order); and by listening hardest when what you’re hearing is hardest to hear.