How many times have you heard someone say, “God gave you two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you talk?” While I don’t know if that’s the reason God made us that way, I do believe in the message that is conveyed.
It seems that many in leadership are frequently more interested in speaking first and listening second, if at all. Perhaps a leader seeks to impress or dominate the conversation. Or perhaps he simply feels he has all the answers. But if there’s one thing that will diminish the respect of others, it is a leader’s lack of interest in what others think or have to say. It may not be intentional on his part, but if a leader cares about those he is entrusted with, it’s incumbent on him to listen more than he speaks.
I think back to the late ’90’s when my business partner and I were opening up one of our more than two dozen senior care facilities. We had the distinct privilege of escorting a noted federal elected official through our property. We obviously felt honored to have him as our guest. But as I recall the encounter, it was clear that the politician had very little interest in our views or concerns. He was more interested in monopolizing the conversation. Since that day, I have had the opportunity to engage with the same individual on a number of other instances and his qualities have never changed. The conversation is always one-sided.
On the flip side, I had a recent encounter in 2015 with one of the Presidential candidates for the Republican nomination and his wife. Following a visit by Senator Ted Cruz, and his wife Heidi, to Chattanooga, I had the unexpected honor of traveling with the two of them on their campaign bus from Chattanooga to Murfreesboro where they were holding another event. I’ve been around three other Presidential candidates in one-on-one scenarios in the past and I had seen the “talk first” mentality exhibited by a couple of them so I fully expected the same from Ted Cruz.
From the beginning of the trip though, I was pleasantly surprised when Heidi Cruz first sat down across from me and some other friends who were also traveling on the bus. Heidi engaged in an interactive, two-way conversation. While she wasn’t the candidate or individual seeking to lead, it was clear that she possessed strong leadership qualities. There was no sense of her desiring to monopolize the conversation but rather she exhibited genuine interest in me, my background and my views.
After 20 minutes or so, Ted came forward from the back of the bus, where he had been engaged in an interview with an NBC reporter. When he joined us, there was no air of “I’ve arrived so it’s time for everyone else to listen up.” Truthfully, Ted was less about him and more about us. He took real interest in what was on our minds and what our concerns were. While we grilled him with questions, his answers were not long or verbose, as I’ve frequently seen from other leaders and politicians. Ted continued to bring the conversation back to us.
In thinking about the leadership qualities and styles of these two elected leaders, I believe there are some distinct lessons that can be learned by those seeking to be good leaders themselves.
Leaders Ask Questions
A leader will ask questions of those he seeks to lead. Questions are the means of finding out what is in the hearts and minds of people. Without asking questions, you’ll never know what concerns others are grappling with. And when you are asking questions, you are talking less.
Leaders Talk Less
There are certainly times when a leader must motivate and inspire others with his words, whether in a rousing speech, or in a call to action with his employees. But generally, a leader must listen more than he talks. As referenced above, questions can serve a useful purpose. But there are frequent times when simply saying little and listening to the hurts, wants, or dreams of your team can be highly instructive to you and healing to them.
Leaders Don’t Interrupt
Interrupting is a trait that is not only disruptive to a meaningful conversation but it can cause frustration and even silence those with whom one seeks to converse. A leader who continuously interrupts others can send a variety of mixed signals such as impatience, superiority, being disinterested and more. So just don’t do it. Wait to speak.
Leaders Remove Distractions
When communicating with others, it’s critical to remove any distractions. In our digital world, it’s easy to be distracted with an iPhone or laptop rather than focusing in on what is being communicated to you. Yes, I struggle with this. But when someone begins talking with you, put everything else aside, look the person in their eyes, and actively engage in the conversation. You will be more apt to retain what was said to you, and the person you are speaking with will be validated in their thoughts and opinions.
Of course, there are many more traits of a good leader we could continue to highlight, but the above list is a good start. Master these, and you will be well on your way to being the kind of leader others respect and will gladly follow. And your effectiveness in addressing the concerns shared by those you lead will skyrocket.