Active listening, even when done well, is simply not enough in our COVID-19 fractured society.
Most leaders, at some point in their development, have attended courses, been coached or read books about active listening. They have learned the skills and tools of asking open and probing questions, reflecting, clarifying, summarising and more. Probably many leaders have embedded these skills into their everyday leadership practice. Potentially many apply these skills with genuine interest and care. Yet, throughout the COVID-19 crisis, I hear from both leaders and their teams that active listening, even when done well, is simply not enough. In academic terms active listening is “necessary but insufficient”.
This leaves me asking, what does more look like?
Fortuitously and coincidentally, I was introduced to the value and idea of Listen Loudly by the Activ Foundation*, a not-for-profit organisation that enables people living with disability to pursue the life they choose. With their permission, I have evolved their value of Listen Loudly into a set of five leadership disciplines that together results in leaders Listening Loudly. I am continuously testing and consistently finding these five disciplines of Listening Loudly both relevant and practical to many leaders, across many organisations in these difficult times. Listening Loudly is proving important for how leaders help their teams respond to and recover from this crisis. In addition, we will need to embed Listening Loudly in our longer-term leadership lexicon if we are to truly heal and ultimately reinvent our organisations, our communities and our societies as we emerge from the fracture we call COVID-19.
What does Listening Loudly really involve?
Discipline 1 – Presence Preoccupation: Leaders seem to have become busier and more distracted in recent times. Even moreso with the advent of COVID-19. How often are you as a leader distracted in a conversation or a meeting with your team by your mobile technology? How often are you as a leader not psychologically present when you are physically with your team? How often do you cancel, interrupt or shorten meetings with your people in favour of some other stakeholder, priority or task? How often do you make your people wait, ask, or even hope for your leadership? Ironically, now more than ever, leaders need to be deeply and continuously connected with their teams. Listening Loudly pre-requires authentic and unequivocal leadership presence. Turn off the noise in your head. Turn off the noise from your technology. Focus your mind and your time on the people you lead and they, in turn, will follow and support your leadership efforts.
Give your followers your fullest attention. And if you can’t be present, don’t pretend!
Discipline 2 – Prescient Orientation: We are all so caught up in ‘today’ that it is hard, if not impossible, to look to ‘tomorrow’. By being prescient, leaders work with their teams to explore and identify the future and how it can be different. Prescience becomes the pre-requisite for problem solving. Looking forward lifts our sense of hope and progress. Looking forward raises our energies and resilience. It is something special you can bring to your team in difficult times. It is essential to individual and team progress and performance.
The power of the leader is in gently helping their followers look forward not down.
Discipline 3 – Problem-Solving Cooperation: How often do you as a leader say to your team “Don’t only bring me problems, bring me solutions!”? Understandably you want your people to think for themselves and to be independent in their roles and their work. However, given the unprecedented challenges in our world today, and probably tomorrow, we need to, as leaders, problem solve with our people. COVID-19 is unprecedented. Why do you think individuals’ existing problem solving capabilities will be sufficient? Active interdependence between you and your team will enhance problem solving. Together you will find the solutions you seek if you listen to the nuance, the subtlety and the complexity of the messages your people are conveying. Listening only to their words and their overt expressions will be inadequate in your search for solutions. Leaders who listen loudly, both listen for solutions in others and help others listen for solutions in themselves too!
Leading collaborative problem solving can counteract the sense of loneliness and hopelessness our teams may be feeling.
Discipline 4 – Pragmatic Simplification: Leaders need to help their teams ‘keep it practical and simple’. If the current way of doing things no longer works, we need help to choose and implement other practical solutions quickly. Big ideas and vision are all well and good, but a loudly listening leader will quickly convert identified ideas into simple actions which achieve profound improvements. The leader will also listen in a way as to help find the stepping stones the individual or team needs to follow, one at a time, to affect their own change. Given the nature of today’s problems, achievement of tomorrow’s solutions will likely need to be profound both in terms of the simplicity and novelty of their implementation.
Leaders who bring both vision and conversion will diminish their team’s distress in today’s world.
Discipline 5 – Principled Humanisation: Underpinning the previous four Listening Loudly disciplines, is the need for you to be transparent in your own ethics, values and principles. Your followers need to know where they stand with you and be able to see you as human. Now is not the time for followers to have to second guess their leader’s ethos. Openness and transparency especially applies to how you relate and respond to your team’s distress and anxiety. If you dismiss others’ emotions as illogical, or even worse as “ill-logical”, then you will not be able to listen loudly. The governing principle for loudly listening leaders is that feelings are not illogical but psychological and to lead others you need to accept and understand the feelings of your people. If you expect and require only logic from your team you will always be disappointed.
When leading people, nothing is logical. When leading people everything is psychological.
Listening Loudly is therefore quite different to active listening. Active listening is a useful and utilitarian set of skills, tools and processes that all individuals can use genuinely when engaging and empathising with others. Listening Loudly is a fundamental shift in our leadership ethos. It is about being permanently present. It is about being future oriented yet profoundly practical. It is about being involved and invested in shared problem solving. More than anything it is about recognising and respecting the humanity and humaneness of each and every person you lead and seeking to understand the other in a way that truly helps you lead them, and your organisation, to a better outcome and future.
Listening Loudly is the new leadership requirement in our fractured society.
* With thanks to the Activ Foundation (https://www.activ.asn.au/) for agreeing to my use and refinement of the term Listen Loudly and for their generous sharing of their world with me.