If you’re a leader, you probably know how important your listening skills are. If you’re a good leader, you’ll certainly know how effective active listening is. But to become an outstanding leader, I invite you to step up to another level in your ability to build relationships with your staff.
Here’s what I propose: the next time you are engaged in a conversation with someone, try to listen him/her in a completely different way. Listen generously. But “generous” in what?
1. Be generous in giving energy
Listening requires attention and attention requires energy. Starting with the concept of active listening, when we are dealing with other people we tend to save as much as physical and mental energy we can. Active listening means that we cannot stay passive but instead we must continuously signal that we are there, for example maintaining eye contact, avoiding defensive gestures like folding our arms, and slightly nodding to reassure the other person that we are tuned in.
This is a very good start, but it’s not enough. We still mistakenly see listening as a process where someone is simply transferring some information to us. We assume that being connected and hearing what the other person is saying is enough to manage the process but in reality, listening is a way more complex activity instead. Our minds produce an incredible amount of distracting things so that a few seconds after we start a conversation, we start to pay less and less attention to what the other person is saying and begin to follow our own thoughts, unless we make a concerted effort not to.
Being generous with our energy means being completely dedicated to the other person. Here is some advice:
- when the other person is talking, imagine him/her as the main actor in a film. Picture the actions and the outcomes described, like you were in your own personal theatre. This helps you to stay focused and to remember what was said;
- if you cannot picture a story, search for the main logical points and every time you find one, create an image in your mind to symbolise it;
- as you consider the elements of what the person is saying, ask yourself some questions about them. Try to resist to the temptation to ask the speaker questions, but rather keep quiet and listen and try to get to the answer yourself.
While active listening demands physical energy, generous listening requires additional effort and calls for significant mental energy, which can be tiring to give.
2. Be generous in giving your time
Let’s start from the common position of feeling that that we don’t even have enough time to do our own tasks. Time is a genuinely scarce resource and many of us live in a state of continuous fear of losing it. Hence, unless someone is saying something useful to us, we to feel uneasy after few minutes of conversation and we’re tempted to try to end the conversation and look at our watches.
Being generous with our time means recognising this sense of urgency and resisting it. Since time is our most precious resource, dedicating ourselves to the other person without obsessing about how much time we are spending with him/her is the highest level of generosity that we can provide in a relationship.
If you want to become generous with time, work continuously on your mindset:
- pretend that time stops as soon as you start listening. Then every problem can wait and you have nothing else to do but listen to who is in front of you. Your absolute priority is what they are talking about in that particular moment;
- consider the person you are talking with is the most important in the world, at least for the time being. After all, for a brief moment you’re sharing with him/her the most important thing you have: your life!
- be confident about the principle of reciprocity. The more you give, the more you’ll get. If you expect other people to be generous with you, you need to be generous with them first.
Always remember that generosity means giving something valuable without necessarily expecting something in return. The joy of helping and making ourselves available to others is considered by the American psychologist Martin Seligman to be the highest form of happiness, called “elevation”. The expression of gratitude from others when we give them time and listen to them should be a great reward for us.
3. Be generous in changing yourself
Energy and time are extremely important, but they are not our most precious assets. There is something which requires even more effort to give to others: our willingness to change.
During our lives we work hard to form opinions about the world, and we apply these views to understand the situations and people that we encounter. This internal mental process is useful because it allows us to solve a lot of daily problems. However, we subconsciously keep searching for things that support our vision of the world, separating out what is right or wrong in our opinion.
Being generous in changing ourselves means:
- at the start of a conversation, keeping in mind that by the end of it you should have changed something about you – this is a measure of success of the conversation;
- being aware of your internal discomfort when a person says something which does not support your vision of the world, and resisting applying a judgement. Fight the temptation to decide what is right or wrong, and rather approach the conversation with curiosity. Be confident about the intrinsic value of discovering something new;
- seeing things through the eyes of the other person. Put yourself in his/her shoes, think about their feelings and thoughts. Search for the reasons for his/her behaviour without necessarily justifying it. Try to find similarities with something you did in the past, perhaps in a completely different situation but with the same underlying logic.
Ask yourself which change the conversation has driven in you, even if it’s a very small one, and consider this as a good reward for your listening generosity.
In summary, listening generously to people is the greatest gift we can offer to both others and ourselves as human beings and leaders.