Colin Powell said, “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” In his book, It Worked for me in Life and Leadership, Powell shares with us rules that he developed, concepts that he found effective, and stories of his life that impacted him and his leadership style.
Good leaders have several important characteristics, and while all deserve a discussion, we simply do not have the column space to discuss all of them with you at one time. In this month’s article, we want to focus on two that may often be overlooked or under-considered: listening and empathy. As a manager in a feed and grain business, you work with many different people including those that report to you, those that you report to, and those that neither report to you nor to which you report, but with whom you work and interact. Improving your listening and empathy skills will raise your status as an effective leader to all of these groups. Today, empathy and listening have been identified as two of the most critical leadership skills for successful leaders. Without well-practiced skills of these two characteristics, leaders are not likely to go as far as others who possess them.
Listening is a Skill
Communications skills include speaking, writing, reading, and listening. In academics, we quite often talk about developing good communications skills in our students, yet, we too, often neglect the listening skills. However, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith says that listening is the skill that separates the great leaders from the near-great leaders. So, what suggests that you are or are not a good listener? Based on the work of several researchers and other authors, below is both a description of a good listener and a not-so-good listener.
A good listener will exhibit the following actions and characteristics:
- Good eye contact; eyes are fixed on the speaker; maintain eye contact
- Does not interrupt but waits for the speaker to finish
- Pays attention to the speaker’s non-verbal behavior, as well as verbal behavior
- Exhibits empathy by working to understand the speaker; demonstrates a caring attitude
- Summarizes what the speaker has said
- Is open-minded and does not criticize
- Provides constructive verbal and non-verbal feedback
- Asks questions in response to a question
A not-so-good listener will exhibit these actions and characteristics instead:
- Poor or little eye contact; eyes may wander and are not focused on the speaker
- Interrupts the speaker; may change the subject
- Is easily distracted, looks around, fidgets, is pre-occupied, takes phone calls, shuffles papers, does not pay attention to the speaker
- Talks more than listens
- May give little or no feedback
- Is close-minded and judgmental
- May give unwanted advice or starts giving advice before the speaker is finished
- Downplays other’s emotions
Surely we have all been poor listeners at some point in time. Think about a time when you were trying to finish an important report and one of your staff popped in your office to talk to you about something. Did you put your report away and give all of your attention to your employee? Or, did you halfway listen while keeping your mind focused on your report? Everyone has times when they probably do not listen as well as they could and this is understandable. But, how you listen and behave much of the time will be the “label” given to you. Others may say that you are not really interested in what they have to say, or they may say that you have already made up your mind so it is not worth the effort to talk with you. If it is a bad time for you to focus on the person wanting to talk to you, then it is better to ask them to come back at a different time, maybe set an appointment. Then, at the time of the scheduled meeting it is important that you give this person all of your attention. This will put you in a much better light with your employee than seeing them now but not really paying attention to them. Poor listening skills can lead to poor relationships and poor performance, not something you want in your feed and grain business. Let your troops know that they can bring you their problems. And, when they do ... actively listen to them.