Are you listening?

Communication is a massive challenge for leaders. Always has been, always will be. One of the biggest issues many of us face is truly listening to people rather than simply waiting for a long enough pause for us to be able to spew out our opinions (and if a pause doesn’t come, we just butt in regardless). But something else is causing me concern about how we’re communicating in the technical age.

Every morning I listen to a talk-show radio station as I do the school-run. It used to be a phone-in station… you know the kind, people calling in to chat about the hot-topics. However, the trend now seems to be moving from phoning in to sending in voice-notes. I understand that this is an efficient form of communication. But the result is that I find myself listening to serial monologues of varied opinions rather than genuine conversation. The listener sends in their opinion, then, after listening to a few of these mini speeches, the DJ responds with their own monologue – always having the final word on the matter.

It seems like genuine conversation is dying a rapid death. The result is that there is less meaningful engagement and next to no accountability for one’s opinion. We already know this is true of social media. Are we in danger of devaluing all human interaction into this form of monologue? In my day to day work, I very rarely pick up the phone and make a call to chat through an issue with a colleague. We are more likely to trade voice notes in order to make arrangements or “discuss” an idea. Even in friendships, whole conversations can be recorded monologues rather than the ebb and flow of beautiful, robust, interactive conversation. And yes, it’s been compounded by lockdown, social distancing and mask-wearing.

I’ve been reflecting on this for some time, and then this quote came on my twitter-feed recently and punched me in the gut:

Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is Empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos, and live in another’s world.

Bill Bullard

That’s what I sense is missing from so much of our human interaction… empathy. The danger of serial monologues is that it re-enforces us in our different opinions rather than leading us on a road to greater understanding and empathy with someone who, for various reasons, may be different to us. The final destination of this pathway is that we dehumanise people. My friend and colleague, Ben Jack, writes:

Dehumanisation is the rejection of empathy, the destruction of compassion, the superiority of self, the physical, emotional or spiritual killing of another”

Hectic! The reality is, we can’t empathise with someone unless we take the time to listen to them. This particularly needs to apply to those of us who aspire to be servant leaders. We can’t serve our team if we are not seeking to converse with them in a way that ignites empathy within us.

Empathy and understanding always begins with listening. Listening is a vital component of building trust which is essential if we are to foster a supportive and loving environment in which people can flourish. This is not simply listening to people in order to hear their complaints, and then carrying on with business as usual. It is attentive, active and intentional.

Attentive listening means being willing to take time out from your busy schedule and spend time with an individual in order to hear their heart, understand their passion, and engage deeply with them. Attentive listening includes listening to what someone is saying in meetings, presentations and informal conversations. Attentive listening requires a commitment to single-tasking; focusing on the moment and eliminating other distractions [yes – I’m preaching to myself here – check out this post I’ve written previously!]

Active listening means engaging with people on subjects that are of interest to them. It involves asking good questions and not always seeking to interrupt with your own opinion. It means delving more deeply, being willing to debate issues or matters, and recognising that we, as leaders, can learn from the other person’s perspective.

Intentional listening means that, as you engage with someone, you are also considering how to respond to the information you are receiving. It means prayerfully reflecting on what someone has shared with you with the intention of considering how you can further develop and empower them to fulfil their potential.

It is impossible to serve others unless we have empathy. We cannot experience empathy unless we are truly listening. So, it stands to reason, we need to listen in order that we can serve and in order that we can lead with empathy.

So here’s a challenge for today. Instead of sending a voice-note to someone, why not pick up the phone or walk over to someone’s desk, and start a good old-fashioned conversation.