Can You Hear Me Now

NR

It’s happened to all of us. We’re blazing through conversation when we realize we’re not getting cues, (uh-huh, yeah, yep, ok), from our friend on the other end of the call. Uncertain, we ask whether or not our buddy remains on the call: “Hello? Are you there? Can you hear me?” The ensuing silence prompts us to look at our phone. Sure enough, the call has been dropped.

As frustrating as a dropped call can be, given the complexity mobile phone communications, we are not overly surprised when we occasionally are cut off from a conversation. At some level, we understand the limitations of network bandwidth, battery life, and signal strength.

While dropped calls are explainable, few experiences are as demeaning or insulting as being dropped in face-to-face conversation. When we’re talking to a person who tunes us out, we feel worthless. When a listener’s posture or facial expressions show boredom or disinterest, we feel insignificant. Similarly, we are annoyed by ceaseless interruptions or being cut short when speaking.

Something inside of us demands to be heard, to be acknowledged, and to know that our ideas and opinions matter. Great leaders have mastered the art of listening, and by doing so, they gain wisdom, earn respect, and win friends. In its February 2007 edition of Leading Effectively,, The Center for Creative Leadership summarizes six listening tips from author Michael Hoppe.

Paying Attention

One of the greatest gifts a leader can give is his or her undivided attention. As simple as it sounds, in practice, paying attention can take a heavy dose of discipline. Whether we’re thinking about an upcoming meeting or an urgent phone call, our minds are cluttered with dozens of thoughts at any point during the day. To offer full attention in conversation, Hoppe suggests:

  • Allowing time and opportunity for the other person to think and speak.
  • Being present, focused on the moment, and operating from a place of respect.

Holding Judgment

By nature, leaders initiate action. However, when listening, leaders must be wary of jumping in too soon with their assessment of a situation. Being overeager to voice an opinion communicates self-importance. Instead, Hoppe proposes the following:

  • Be open to new ideas, new perspectives and new possibilities.
  • Suspend judgment, withhold criticism, and avoid arguing or selling your point right away.

Reflecting

In reflecting, the listener affirms the person speaking by matching their emotional tone and restating important themes from the conversation. Reflecting reinforces a listener’s involvement and interest in a conversation. Hoppe weighs in with the following tips on reflecting:

  • Mirror the other person’s information and emotions by paraphrasing key points.
  • Don’t make assumptions.

Clarifying

In communication, when intent differs from interpretation, the misunderstanding can have troubling consequences. Hoppe recommends clarifying by:

  • Clearing up confusion.
  • Inviting reflection and a thoughtful response instead of telling others what to do.

Summarizing

Without outlining action steps or assigning responsibility, many meetings conclude in confusion. As a conversation draws to a close, be sure to review promises made and to write down commitments given. Hoppe’s tips on summarizing include:

  • Restating key themes.
  • Being clear on mutual responsibilities and follow-up.

Sharing

Leaders are confident, decisive, and quick to volunteer advice. However, when listening, a leader’s first job is to gain full understanding of the person speaking. Then, and only then, should the leader begin to coach or instruct. Hoppe proposes two tips to remember when sharing:

  • Seek understanding before seeking to be understood.
  • Use similar experiences to introduce ideas, feelings, or suggestions.

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

 

LEADERSHIP PITFALLS

When chronic problems plague a business, look no further than the leader to discover the source of the troubles. Everything rises and falls on leadership, and entrepreneurs know this lesson as well as anyone. Since they don’t have multiple departments to blame or layers or bureaucracy to hide behind, small business owners are more apt than corporate executives to recognize the effects of personal shortcomings. In a March 2007 article for Entrepreneur Magazine, Geoff Williams describes the main pitfalls of entrepreneurial leadership. His list can be summarized into three main snares: hoarding ownership, losing focus, and undervaluing results.

HOARDING OWNERSHIP

For parents of toddlers, the terrible twos can be an era of suffering. As a child begins to understand the concept of ownership, a defiant “Mine!” seems to be the word of choice. As the toddler lays claim to my toy, my shoe, or my cookie, the parents painstakingly attempt to teach the child to share.

Comparing leaders to two-year olds may be a stretch, but the biggest culprit of leadership failure is the effort to take ownership of every aspect of business—from relationships, to tasks, to decision-making. The temptation to be all and do all lurks inside almost every leader. Entrepreneurs particularly grapple with sharing ownership. After creating, funding, and running a startup company, few business owners transition smoothly to giving away ownership. Their personal investment to get the company off of the ground makes it difficult to relinquish control of decision-making. Micromanagement or unwillingness to delegate handcuffs a leader and prevents him or her from advancing the organization.

LOSING FOCUS

Nature teaches about the force of narrowing focus. Consider two rivers:

The first is wide, slow-moving, and shallow. Ever-expanding, the river broadens, but never deepens. Soon, not enough water remains to cover the riverbed and dry land is exposed in the middle of the river. Since the water won’t support sailing, boats avoid the river.

Like an overly-wide river, when a leader has a fuzzy mission, time and resources are spread thin chasing after each opportunity. Hindered by unchecked growth, the business is exposed for being a shallow enterprise and spurned by its customers.

The second river is narrow, fast-flowing, and deep. Constantly carving deeper into the earth, the river gains strength and its current quickens. The swift flow and depth are ideal for boats to navigate the river.

Like the deeply cut river, when a leader has a clear vision of the path ahead, the streamlined organization carves its niche and gathers speed. As the company builds for depth and picks up momentum, customers are attracted to it.

UNDERVALUING RESULTS

As the old saying goes, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Yet, perhaps another proverb should be coined, “All play and no work makes Jack bankrupt.” The leadership landscape has tilted in favor of “soft” leadership skills (emotional intelligence, employee recognition, etc.), but cold, hard numbers still determine the viability of business. Nothing is wrong with emphasizing the “soft” side of leadership—in fact, creating an inviting and enjoyable workplace matters more than ever. However, leaders who excel are the ones who also diligently push for results. Ideally, “soft” leadership skills translate into financial profits, but they don’t do so automatically. Leaders must have a “hard” edge as w
ell: backbone to enforce rules, resolve to hold employees accountable, and thick skin to make unpopular decisions.

On this day...

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