If you were to ask my wife what my superpower is, she'd tell you that I'm the best listener she's ever met. When she first told me that, I was a little surprised. If I'm being honest, I was slightly disappointed that she didn't think my superpower would be something far more extraordinary. But the more I've thought about it, the more flattering a comment it's become and I've realized just how critical listening is in relationships and business.
Being a good listener isn't something that comes naturally to all people. It is not an inherent trait but a skill to be learned. And for leaders — no matter how big or small your team is — it's an imperative skill. I still have room to grow and always will, but I wanted to share why listening is vital to leadership.
A true leader is self-aware of their limitations and hires appropriately. If you are CEO, you should be hiring people that are smarter and more capable than you in their respective positions. If you are CFO, you should be better at balancing the budget than others, and the in-house lawyers should know more about laws as they relate to your business. The head of Human Resources should understand the workings of the onboarding process in a way that no one else does.
Being self-aware enough to know that you are not the most intelligent person in the room — and that it's a good thing — leads directly to listening. I must listen to my CFO if I want our business to be profitable, I must listen to my legal team if I want our business to stay within regulations and I must listen to my HR department if I want to ensure we're finding and retaining top talent. It becomes my job to listen to all of them, ask questions when they arise, and ensure we're seeing a way to accomplish everything that needs to be done while maintaining efficiency. Without listening, that's simply an impossible task.
By that logic, I try to speak last in a meeting. I don't mean that I have to get the last word in, but I want to hear what everyone else has to say before giving my thoughts. When you speak, you're saying something you already know. When you listen, you gain the opportunity to learn something new.
I've found that people often try to show up with a solution before fully understanding the problem. I know the mentality. People want to be proactive and fix issues as they arise. This can happen with employees, clients and personal relationships. However, more often than not, if you take the extra time to understand the problem, the solution you bring will likely be the right one the first time.
By now, most people have heard the phrase "active listening" and could probably you a surface-level definition. When people teach active listening, they tell you to make sure you're making eye contact with the person speaking, nod at appropriate times and use affirmations like "yep" or "mm-hmm," now and again. You wait until the person is done speaking, you don't interrupt and you respond with a question or comment that shows you understood what the person was saying.
Unfortunately, when we're taught how we should be listening, it can lead to us being so focused on listening "well" or "actively" that it ends up causing the opposite effect. Active listening has good tips to keep in mind, but authentic listening comes from being fully open to receiving the information you're given. If you are genuinely focused on what the other person has to say, you will inherently do better listening. Suppose you're not thinking about what you'll say in response to the person, not too concerned that you're giving the right physical cues, or simply tuning the other person out. In that case, chances are you're already closer to active listening than most.
It should go without saying that this is not an easy skill to master. Realistically, no one can be a perfect listener all the time. We have so many thoughts running through our heads that it can sometimes feel impossible to take in someone else's thoughts, even if only a few. But the first step to getting better is self-awareness and recognizing that listening is an ability you're meant to improve. You will need it throughout your entire life, in every aspect. Kate Murphy sums it up best in her book, You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why it Matters when she writes, "Evolution gave us eyelids so we can close our eyes but no corresponding structure to close off our ears. It suggests listening is essential to our survival."