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Listen up: Learning the Most Important Leadership Skill

by Jill Foster on March 23, 2009

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Guest post by Katie Kemple, regular guest contributor to Women Grow Business & COO of Capitol News Connection, a multimedia news non-profit. She holds an Executive Master’s in Leadership from Georgetown University and believes in the power of positive thinking (plus embracing failure as a path to success). Katie is writing a memoir about being unemployed and a book on finding joy in leadership. She can be reached through her blog Love Your Layoff.

Growing up in rural High Falls, New York (pop. 600)

I had a very long bus ride to school. My one wish was to stare out the window and daydream. A wish that would go unanswered most mornings as some girl would sit next to me and tell me her problems. The result was a compromise, I would appear to “listen”, while allowing my mind to dip in and out of daydreams. I thought I was clever and actually convinced myself that I was a good listener.

Tales from a recovering fake listener
My listening habit continued for years peacefully uninterrupted until 1998, when my then boyfriend snapped me out of a trance: “Hey, Katie…Hello? There you go again. It’s like you’re not even here. You’re not listening to me.” (image Listen by Fred Armitage, Creative Commons)

This became a joke when he was in a good mood, and a fight when he was not. I wish I could say that it ended there…

Fast forward to 2008 (yes, a full ten years later) and I’m sitting in a leadership workshop where we’ve been divided into teams of two. One person is instructed to talk. The other person acts engaged (for the first minute) then disengaged (for the second minute). I was the talker for a change and, of course, the first minute was easy.

The second minute, however, was grueling. I fumbled. I repeated words. I forgot what I was talking about.

I became fascinated with the boots my companion was wearing and adjusting while I spoke. I may have even started talking about her boots. Of course, I was not listening to myself, so I couldn’t tell you for sure.

Then it hit me.
That night, I came home and my husband (who’d had a harrowing day with our toddler) started to tell me about his day. Meanwhile, I did the dishes, checked my BlackBerry, de-cluttered the table, wondered what we should eat for dinner, salad or take out?…when it hit me:

I am not listening. I am not listening. I am not listening!!!

The most important leadership skill is listening.

If you don’t listen, forget about helping other people (which should be the definition of leadership). Some people blame technology for society’s lack of listening skills. I don’t buy it. People have found ways and reasons not to listen since the dawn of time. Laptops, cell phones, text messaging, email, IM, Twitter….these only give us new platforms to ignore each other.

The temptation to slip into our own world of thought is so darn ever present that it requires years and years of constant reminders to get to a point of recognition and awareness. How many times have you been introduced to someone at a party, only to forget their name five minutes later?

Guess what, you didn’t forget it. You weren’t listening.

So, if you want to be respected by your employees, vendors, spouses, children…basically anyone in the world, take action now to improve your listening skills.

Here are some exercises to get you started:

  • Close your eyes and don’t open them until you have identified ten separate sounds in your immediate environment.
  • For an entire day (or week, or month…or lifetime) when someone talks to you, stop what you are doing and look into his/her eyes as they speak to you.
  • For every employee you have, write down (from memory) where they grew up and where they live now; the names of their spouse, children & pets; last place they took a vacation; hobbys; favorite restaurant or food; favorite sports team; birthday; favorite TV show/movie/author. Don’t have answers? Create more opportunities to listen.
  • At your next event, commit to remembering the name of every person you meet, plus five pieces of information you discovered in the conversation. After the event, jot down information while it’s fresh in your mind to test your performance.

Interested in learning more?

Check out these articles for additional tips:

Katie Kemple writes the ongoing leadership series at Women Grow Business with her launch post being Leadership Trumps a Freak Out.

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