It’s only a few weeks into the new year, and it already feels like things are moving fast. The quiet pace of the holiday season has receded and the waves of meetings, phone calls, and email have returned to “normal” levels. The lure of busyness and activity can inhibit your willingness to slow down and process the decisions and choices you are making to ensure they are in alignment with your broader goals and, more importantly, your divine design.
Great leaders practice strategic listening. That sounds so formal, but it doesn’t have to be. The people you lead, the people you respect, and the people you are accountable to should have the opportunity to speak into your leadership. They see things from a different perspective, and sometimes all you need is to be able to look at a familiar situation in a new way to arrive at a new conclusion or find renewed inspiration to push through your current circumstance.
The discipline of strategic listening
Strategic listening is essential to building the right framework so you can ensure your intentions, actions, and decisions line up with your intended outcomes. But listening is not often a value we attribute to leaders. And this is, I believe, a fundamental challenge.
Our culture often perceives listening as a sign of weakness. If you’re asking questions, then you must not know what to do. If you’re seeking counsel, then you must be in trouble. And if you’re making time for other leaders to give you input, then you must simply be delaying an important decision.
That type of thinking will limit your leadership potential. It will set you up to avoid interdependence with those you need to achieve your goals, and it will inherently limit your openness to new and different ideas. I would challenge you to reframe your thinking just a bit. Instead of seeing listening as a sign of weakness, unnecessary complexity, or delay, consider it to be an opportunity to be sure you’ve got all the information you need before you make a critical decision.
The larger your organization and the higher you sit on the organizational chart, the greater impact your daily decisions have on the lives of people. You are responsible for the organization and its objectives, but I would also contend you are responsible for the lives of the people within your organization. Strategic listening will help you avoid making decisions in a vacuum and will provide you an opportunity to get the input you might never discover in a slide deck, data model, or visualization tool.
How to Practice Strategic Listening
There are three types of listening you should practice in your leadership, especially when you want to get your organization unstuck and headed toward breakthrough:
· Listen for information. This type of listening is vital. You must fight against the assumption that you already know “the facts” and the urgency to make a quick decision to get onto “more important things.” Assumptions are easy to make; it’s also easy for assumptions to lead us to inaccurate or incomplete conclusions. Make sure you find time to gather the qualitative and quantitative information you need.
· Listen for insight. There are people in your organization who see inefficiencies, opportunities, or obstacles better than you do because that is the world they live in. Give them an opportunity to share their experience and contribute to the direction and decisions that will be made.
· Listen for confirmation. If the direction you are heading is the right one, you’ll find confirmation of that while engaging others. You don’t engage them to find validation or to ask permission. You engage them to ensure your thinking, assumptions, and perspectives are consistent with their perception of reality. Own your role as a decision maker, but listen for confirmation of direction and intent in the conversations you have with others.
All three of those functions will shift given the person you are talking to, their level of influence, and how the decision will directly impact their ability to be successful. Take this to the family level. While you might want input from your children as to what car you purchase, they aren’t financial contributors to the situation. They may encourage you to add the DVD option so that they can watch movies on trips. However, that option may not be available or in your budget. While you listen for information in that scenario, you and your spouse must make the best financial as well as functional decision.
The power of strategic listening will open you up to new ideas, perspectives, and insights that will help you make the best decision possible. You can’t eliminate the unknown. The entire premise of breakthrough is that you’re attempting something you’ve never done before. It’s OK to feel a little scared, uncertain, or even doubt yourself at times. This is why, I believe, it’s vital to engage the people around you.
Change your listening, change your confidence
Another aspect of making strategic listening a core discipline in your leadership is that others will reciprocate. When you make space to listen to others, they will return the favor. Misalignment, disruptions, or even obstacles are sometimes created because there wasn’t time for strategic listening. But the respect, humility, and courage to actively engage and listen to others will not communicate weakness but an immense amount of strength.
It could be the very thing you think you don’t have time to do is, in fact, the very thing that will propel you toward breakthrough with boldness, courage, and clarity. If you’ll listen before you leap, the organization is likely to leap with you. And that level of solidarity is what moves organizations, cultures, and communities to do and achieve in ways no one previously thought possible.
CHALLENGE: Review your calendar for this week. Is there enough time in your schedule for strategic listening? If not, make time. Try to practice this discipline in relation to an upcoming decision you know is an important one to achieving your outcomes. Assess how the information, insight, and confirmation you uncovered changed, influenced, or built upon your final decision.