Most of us have a preconception of what effective listening and leadership are. For me, I used to think if I remained silent and made eye contact with the person speaking, I was a good listener. However, good listening is more of an active activity. A good listener asks questions to promote the discovery of information and insight. A good question would be one that tactfully challenges assumptions constructively. Fundamentally good listening opens the door to a constructive two-way dialogue rather than a speaker and audience interaction.
Another aspect of being a good listener as a leader is building another person's self-esteem so that the listener feels like they walked away having had a positive experience with you as a result of the conversation. The other person would feel supported and heard, and there was a safe environment in which they could bring up their issues and views openly. A characteristic of a poor listener is somebody who is just waiting to talk. Many of us do that unintentionally because we are caught up in our passion for our views, or think that it's in the other person's best interest to absorb the information we would like to impart. However, as leaders, we have to remember that we must remain humble and tactful, and that leadership is a people business. Leadership is both an art and science, and more psychological than anything.
Imagine two people speaking to each other: neither of them gets defensive about the comments they made. No one is speaking competitively, or sitting in passive-aggressive silence, or starting a debate that leads absolutely nowhere. You would be watching an excellent conversation. Leaders see themselves as problem solvers and rightly so. If we aren't always attempting to solve the problems of others, how could they possibly grow? A good leader should make suggestions and open alternative avenues of approach to solving problems. A leader is a coach, not a tyrant.
This article would be completely pointless if I did not share my personal experiences in active listening. I would like to humbly share my experiences and how I developed this skill set that could not be obtained from a book. When I was brand-new in my leadership position in the military, I had to sit down with another service member and introduce myself as their new supervisor, what I expected of them and what they should expect from me. The first time I was visibly nervous. The service member and I even smiled nervously, and them seeing my vulnerability helped gained their trust. However all I did was I let them know what they could expect of me as their supervisor, and I told them if they ever had any questions they could come to me.
When it was time for me to do a performance appraisal, I wanted to seize the opportunity to correct my error. Instead of doing most of the talking, all I did was provide objective feedback on objective performance metrics and then open the floor. I asked the service member how they felt about their job and their performance. How did they think they could improve? Were there were any nagging problems they were experiencing? Were there issues they were frustrated with and wanted help with solving within their skill set or in their personal development. By being open, approachable, and helpful, I gained a significant amount of respect and trust from them. I've never forgotten that lesson. My mentor told me that I did an excellent job at the time. However, if I wanted to do an exemplary job, I would align their personal and professional goals with that of the organization as a personal coach.