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deep listening: pART 1 | the key to engagement

Engagement and psychological safety are two big topics in the world of work. Following almost two years of disruption and stress created by the COVID pandemic, many employees are feeling disconnected, vulnerable, and anxious. One of the most helpful things leaders can do to help them reconnect and feel safe is to listen – properly.

The great management thinker Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, once said that most people don’t listen to understand; instead they listen to respond. By highlighting our tendency to judge what is being said and prepare our response to it even while the other person is still speaking, Covey highlighted how the mere appearance of listening is not sufficient to match the power of genuine enquiry. Something else is required – a deeper, more generous type of listening.

I once heard someone who had met US President Bill Clinton describe his experience of his deep listening. He said that although they were at busy social event in the centre of Manhattan, New York, and even while he wasn’t a particularly important person, he still experienced the incredible intensity with which Bill listed to what he had to say – as if no-one else existed in the room for Bill in that moment, just the person in front of him. According to author and consultant Geoffrey Tumlin in his book Stop Talking, Start Communicating, Clinton’s ability to listen and be fully present was a key element of his extraordinary ability to communicate and connect with people, regardless of their position, background or political interests.

Benefits of deep listening

Listening is often done poorly or superficially. A vast difference exists between just listening and actually hearing and understanding what is being said by others.

The way you listen can have major implications for your leadership:

  • Enhanced Influence: Deep and attentive listening is a characteristic of warm intentions. It signals to the other person that they matter, and what they have to say is important. When others feel listened to and understood, they are much more likely to listen to your views. They are also more likely to be willing to be influenced by what you have to say. Their trust in your intentions is increased and, as a result, even if they don’t agree with your leadership decisions, they are much more likely to actively support them or at least not mount resistance to them.

  • Better Decisions: Listening also enhances your strength through building your mastery and competence. The better you understand situations and people through the act of listening, the more complete the information you gain to make better choices and decisions.

  • Motivating Others: To be effective at influencing and mobilising others, you need to be masterful at meeting others where they are at before leading them towards where they need to go. If you don’t genuinely listen to how others see the world and learn what drives them forward and what holds them back, you are essentially powerless to meet them where they are at, and certainly incapable of helping them overcome their own challenges to getting to where you need them to go.

  • Psychological Safety: People will hold back if they feel unsafe around a leader, especially one who is unable to listen deeply and without judgement. With research proving that a lack of psychological safety has an impact on innovation, engagement and workplace injuries and fatalities, deep listening plays an important part in encouraging people to speak up and out.

In the next instalment of this series, I’ll explore the critical role of deep listening in establishing psychological safety in the workplace, and the role that leaders play.

further information

For more on this topic or other essential leadership issues please visit our website, read my other blog articles, listen to my podcast or read my book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership


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