In Monkey, Wise Owl or Dolphin: What kind of conversations do you have? Andy Buck highlighted his approach to asking the right questions first. But what happens once you’ve asked a question? Actively listening to the answer is also vital.
The link with Goleman’s research
Daniel Goleman’s (2001) work on leadership styles is directly relevant here and lends some evidence in support of my 'Ask First' model. If you think about it, in ’monkey on your shoulder’ conversations you are pretty much adopting a pace-setting leadership style. ’Wise owl’ questions broadly relate to you being coercive or directive. Both of these, on average and over time, were shown to have a negative effect on organisational performance where leaders overly relied upon them. However, ’dolphin’ conversations are much more akin to democratic and coaching leadership styles, both of which, the evidence suggest, have a positive effect over time.
Of course, there are times when coercive or pace-setting leadership is required, often in times of crisis when colleagues will look to you as leader for guidance and direction. However, over time, the most effective leaders shift from leading in front of the team to leading the team from within.
The importance of listening
As David Hockney reminds us: “Listening is a positive act. You have to put yourself out to do it”. Even if you have developed the habit of asking great questions, if you don’t listen actively, you will be missing the opportunity to be even more effective. It is not about being soft. Listening to colleagues can tell you important information about what is really happening on the ground, it provides room for your team to grow and develop their thinking and is more likely to lead to distributed and sustainable leadership.
The first thing about listening is that it is active, not passive. When done well, listening gives you more information about a situation or individual, and leads towards greater insight, awareness or learning. You might see a different perspective or clarify your thinking. Active listening relies on good questioning. By structuring your questions, you can lead someone through a thinking process or suggest new ways of approaching a problem. How well do you tend to structure your questions at the moment? Are they leading or open? Do they provide enough space for the other person to reflect? Do your questions build on one another to lead to deeper learning?
You can also listen and pick up information that goes beyond the words the other person is using. Listen for emotion, body language, tone of voice, speed of talking and clarity of thinking. By listening actively for these, they will tell you a great deal about the other person’s frame of mind, emotional state and the purpose of the conversation. Often the words someone is using do not reflect what they really mean or want to say. How far do you listen beyond the words for what is really behind a conversation, what isn’t being said?
How to show you are listening
Others are more likely to share if they feel that you are listening to them or that listening is resulting in some action or change. To a certain extent the relevance of your questions will demonstrate that you are listening. Techniques you can use to show active listening include:
reflect back the words someone has used, or make statements to show you understand their emotions.
mirroring their non-verbal signals with your body language and tone of voice
adopting non-confrontational body language or tone of voice if they are angry or upset
Andy Buck is Managing Director of Leadership Matters and is leading the session Leading for Impact at ASCL Annual Conference 2017.