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Leading by listening​

Have you been in a meeting recently, where the person who seemed to get the most attention was the person who shouted the loudest? Did you quietly sit there wondering why they got so much attention?

We’ve all been there. 

The thing is though, many people equate talking loudly, or even shouting, with managers and leaders. Its one of those things we’ve all seen: a manager shouting at everyone (shouting seems to come naturally to some people, whether what they are saying is good or bad). Or the person who always has something to say about everything (hey I am one of those, though actively recovering from it!). But what about those people that sit quietly at the back of the room?

Maybe you are one of those quiet people sitting at the back of the room. Maybe you’ve just observed them in action and wondered what they are contributing.

In reality, most of us sit somewhere in between: between the extreme quiet and the shouty person. But as leaders, it is important we are able to listen. 

Listening is quite possibly the most important skill in a leader. And I don’t mean just sitting there passively taking it all in. I mean actively listening: understanding, digesting, evaluating. The active listener begins to get the complete picture, and only makes a decision, comment or observation when they feel fully equipped. The active listener will ask questions to help understand, rather than to poke holes or make fun.

But why does this matter? Does it really make a difference in how a team operates? Can’t we all just put up with loud person?

Creativity comes from a place of space and time. 

Firstly, there is nothing wrong with having an opinion about everything (I am defintely one of those!).  So don’t beat yourself up if you always are thinking ‘but’, ‘what if’, ‘how about…’. That’s OK. You can’t just magically turn that off! And the very fact that you might think that way, means you are actively evaluating. What you need to do is moderate how much you vocalise. How many times have you, or a colleague asked a question in a meeting, seminar or lecture, butting into a presentation, only to have the presenter say ‘I’ll get to that in just a moment’. 

Secondly, it’s important to remember that teams need to be able to create. In the tech industry in particular, creativity is what we do. Whether you are designing a new product, writing a line of code, or posting to social media, you are creating something. Creativity comes from a place of space and time. It doesn’t come from being tense and fearful. So walking out of a meeting having lots of opinions flying back and forth and high volume, people having to defend themselves, even if only some people were involved, isn’t going to improve things. The only person who might feel better is the loud shouty person, and even still, only certain personalities really thrive creatively, in such environments.

Instead, everyone will go back to their desks and appear to be busy. But ask yourself, are you really doing your best work after such an experience?

Meetings should be about solving problems and inspiring people. I’m not a fan of the update meeting, as the majority of those can be done outside the meeting space. So meetings should always be about moving the needle forward. Disabling people’s creativity because of competitive, confrontational behaviour, therefore, is therefore not going to achieve much.

So ask yourself. How can you become a more active listener and lead by example? Here are some top-tips to reframe your meeting style:

  • Take notes: actively writing down keywords, phrases or even entire sentences will help you process. Learning by note-taking, and ideally using written notes, not a laptop has been shown to improve knowledge retention, but that doesn’t stop when you finish studying. The top thinkers, managers, creators, inventors and leaders are constantly learning and the first place to do that is with your colleagues. Learn about and properly understand what they are doing by note-taking. You can then also write down your questions about key areas, and if they aren’t answered, you have them noted so you can come back to them later.
  • Ask exploratory questions. Use questions to focus on understanding the full picture rather than picking apart. Before you ask a question ask yourself: what is the real reason I’m asking this question? Be honest with yourself! If it is to show how great you are in any way, it isn’t the right question to ask. If it helps you understand fully, then it is a good question.
  • Be patient. Wait until the person speaking has finished. They may well clarify the concerns you have. If necessary you can speak to them in private about how to present to avoid concerns arising because of poor presenting order, but doing that in a meeting, with others around, won’t help anyone! Of course, I’m asking you to lead by example here, and others may interrupt the speaker. Don’t be discouraged. Lead by example. And thank others for their patience when appropriate. 
  • Don’t be afraid to hold off making a decision. As leaders, it is important to be able to make thoughtful decisions quickly. But it is more important to be thoughtful than quick. As you build knowledge and expertise, quick decision making will become easier. But even the most experienced people need time for big decisions. Don’t be afraid to ask for more time, send an email afterwards and sleep on things. The big reason to pause is that you need more information. If this is the case, be active in collecting it, to show that the decision matters to you. And always share with others an expected timeframe for your decision. Don’t assume because it is trivial-sounding to you, that it is to them. And if something is important to someone, it will distract them. So always be as specific as possible on the timing around decision making.

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