Thoreau wrote: “It takes two to speak the truth – one to speak and another to hear.” Most of us are great at the former but at the latter, not so much.  Truth be told, most of us are poor listeners.  When considering great leadership skills, we focus on transmission skills–speaking and writing.  The most effective leaders know they have to be great listeners too. They understand the need to work hard to increase their chance of hearing the truth.   When leaders ask me how they can communicate better, I tell them to listen better, listen smarter, and listen more often.

Here are four things to consider:

  1. Do you ever stop talking? It’s been said, “if you want to learn something new, stop talking.” This is especially true for leaders.  Because as a leader you rarely get interrupted, but when you stop talking, someone will fill the silence and often with what you need to know.  We’ve all been in meetings where everyone but the boss knew an important truth, but it never surfaced because the boss never stopped talking.
  2. Do you ask smart questions?  A leader’s questions indicate interest in learning and also show respect for the insight of their people. I’m not recommending questions that prove how smart you are, but the probing questions that indicate your interest and uncertainty. Military commanders use a formal tool to identify their information needs; a list of questions to clarify information that will lead to understanding, decision, and action.  All effective leaders ask great questions and use every tool at their disposal to increase their understanding.
  3. Do you listen to all the answers? Its easy for leaders to listen to voices that sound like their own, but the best leaders listen to a chorus of voices. They welcome unexpected and even uncomfortable answers by encouraging the messenger. They listen where the rubber meets the road and the truth most often resides.
  4. Do you make honesty your policy?  I’ve yet to see a great organization that didn’t make honesty a core value.  We are conditioned to please authority figures–parents, teachers, bosses–and as a consequence people will lie, cheat and steal to please the boss unless the boss makes it clear that doing the right thing pleases them more.

If you really want to hear the truth, listen better.  Leaders who don’t will learn the truth sooner or later, but it just might come from an unwanted headline, broadcast, or blog.

Thoughts?

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