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Listening Like a Leader
by Garrison Wynn

Our studies of the most effective people in corporate America show that the top 2 percent are effective not because they executed best practices well. They did not make the most phone calls or have the best processes. They simply understood the truth about trust:
  1. People do business with people they like.
  2. They like people they trust.
  3. They trust people who have a detectable level of compassion and competence.
Does it take time to build trust? The truth is that you have known people for five years who still don't trust you, and you've known some for five minutes who do. Our research shows that trust is usually created by showing a detectable level of concern. When people truly believe you are concerned for them, they tend to think you possess good judgment. After all, if you care about them, you must know what you are doing.

So what is the fastest and most effective way to show people that you care and you're competent? Make sure they feel heard, which is more than just listening. I call it listening like a leader. You are not a leader unless you have followers; a leader without followers is called a failure. Regardless of your skills, if your staff doesn't feel heard and doesn't trust you, they will always do the minimum. They will watch the clock and be ready to leave at 4:45 every afternoon. They will do just enough each day to avoid getting fired, and they will hope the idea you came up with without their input fails. That's right-you can spend your life delegating to people who want your projects to fail. How smart is that?

OK, you have to listen; I am sure you already know that. The issue is, how well do people really listen? Most studies show that 75 percent of the world's population does not listen well.

Here is an insight that you won't find in many books, keynote speeches or training programs. As a whole, we don't listen very well and it's not our fault! That's right, I am sure you are used to hearing and reading that all of our communication problems are of our making. However, most experts agree that from birth to 5 years of age, we learn more than we will for the rest of our lives.

Even if you earn 15 doctorate degrees in your lifetime, you still acquired most of your knowledge in early childhood. In those formative years, if a child does not feel heard by the adults in its life, it does not possess good listening skills. The bottom line is that it's hard to listen when no one ever listened to you.

Listening is not hereditary.

It's an acquired skill.

Are we going to blame the parents? No! It's difficult to listen to young children when we are trying to look out for their welfare. When my stepdaughter was five, she asked me if Dracula drives a taxi cab. I said, "Well…, I guess if it's a night job. Uh, wait a minute! What kind of question is that?"

She also asked me if she could have a tattoo-not a fake, stick-on tattoo from an ice cream parlor vending machine, but a real one. I said, "No, because you're in kindergarten-and I'm taking the TV out of your room just for asking that question."

People are more likely to follow your example than to follow your advice. We create better listeners by being better listeners.

Unfortunately, we don't have much evidence of people returning from communication-training programs as better listeners. It doesn't take a lot of research to figure out that poor listeners get very little from seminars on listening.

So we don't listen and it prevents us from being effective leaders. If we can't do much to improve our listening skills, we have to focus on what we can do in the condition we are in.

The key, then, is to focus on making sure people feel heard. And the first step requires recognizing and recovering from distractions.

One day, as I listened to an employee talk about his wants and needs, my mind started to wander. There he was, sharing his core issues, and I'm thinking to myself, "Look at the size of this guy's head!" It was hard to focus. Once I was trying to listen to a prospect on a sales call when I noticed he had red hair, blonde eyebrows and a black mustache. I remember thinking, "It's Mr. Potato Face! Something has to be a stick-on; that's not all him."

After we recover from our own distractions, we have to deal with the real issues at hand. The first of these issues is what I refer to as "the pitch in your head." It can be anything from a preconceived idea that a manager has about an employee, to a practiced presentation that you are dying to spew on your unsuspecting sales victims (prospects, I mean).

Sure, you ask a question just as you were taught to do in your sales or management training program-you know, a question like "Based on what criteria are your decisions made?" As they talk and you diligently pretend to listen, the pitch in your head starts to play; and when the prospect says something that strikes a chord in you, triggering how much you know, your pitch finds the pause it was looking for and off you go.

"I know exactly what you are talking about because I have had many people just like you with this exact same situation. As a matter of fact, it was this time last year and they even looked a lot like you." You then project your opinion, experience or spiel onto the person as a solution to his or her problem. Instead of feeling heard, the person feels quickly judged, and communication does not take place. It was dead before the spew was finished.

The problem with this scenario is that you rob people of their uniqueness. When you tell them you know exactly what the problem is, they tend to want to show you how unique they are. You actually create your own resistance and prevent your skills and even your empathy from making their mark.

When people are talking, you are thinking about you or about what you can do to help them help you. It's a natural thing for us to do, and it forces us to pitch hard and focus on convincing rather than on gaining agreement.

So what do the most effective people do differently?

They make sure the people they are dealing with feel heard and can retain their uniqueness. If you make people feel important, you will be important to them!

But an even bigger realization comes from all of this.

When you focus on how people feel about what they are saying, you increase the level of true concern you have for others. You actually start to become the person you thought you were pretending to be: a true leader!

Copyright Garrison Wynn . All Rights Reserved.

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