Lead Through Listening

Dad was waiting in the parking lot at the usual time. As the basketball players left the gym, he noticed his 10-year-old’s head hanging low. When his son hopped in the car and slammed the door, the father asked, “How was practice?” The boy replied, “I hate my coach.”

This response did not sit well with Dad. Three thoughts rushed to his head, all fighting to be delivered in a disciplinary tone. First: “I’ve taught you not to speak disrespectfully about any coach or adult.” Second: “Are you kidding? This guy is a great coach—one of the best!” And third: “Do you have any idea how hard I worked to make sure you were placed on this guy’s team?” For some reason, however, Dad chose not to speak any of those condemning thoughts. Instead, only three words came out of his mouth; perhaps three of the best words he’d ever accidentally said: “Tell me more.”

His son went on to explain the events that took place during practice. Dad knew he was not yet hearing the whole story, so he continually prompted, “What else happened?” Eventually, the son admitted he was reprimanded for being sidetracked during practice and goofing off during one of the drills. Ultimately, his young son was so embarrassed by the coach’s scolding in front of the entire team, it led him to declare, “I hate my coach.”

Moral of the story: Dad’s first, second and third thoughts—if delivered immediately—would have missed the mark by a mile. They were totally irrelevant in light of the facts, which would never have been revealed had he delivered his all-knowing speech. Dad could have been guilty of jumping the gun with a quick response. But he learned so much more on this occasion by saying only three little words: “Tell me more.” Listening to the complete story provided much insight as to how his son thinks and reacts.

As a business leader, you have the same responsibility to your clients as a father has to his son: Listen, get the facts, determine the problem and help resolve the situation. Listening is an art and a skill. It requires discipline and focused attention. When you give the gift of silence, you allow others the chance to think and process their thoughts. The time required to do this varies tremendously, depending on with whom you’re speaking. When it comes to sharing thoughts and feelings about an event, two very different types of personalities can emerge. In both cases, the tell me more approach works well, although the timing varies.

The fast-twitch responder

Some people tend to think out loud for everyone to hear—often in a very blunt manner. They then edit their thoughts in public by saying, “Here’s what I really meant,” or “Let me rephrase that.” They might even revise their initial version several times. Typically, they quickly offer the information you’re seeking, so it may seem that very little patience will be required on your part.

Keep in mind that, although you may not have to wait long to hear their story, immediately jumping in with your assumptions and drawing conclusions will often prove to be a mistake. This conversation is a work in progress for a quick responder, and it’s far more prudent for you to deliver a well-timed, “Tell me more,” or an “… and then what?” The additional information you receive will be worth the wait, as feelings and thoughts become clearer in the mind of a fast-twitch responder.

The slow-twitch responder

Some people tend to process everything internally, preferring not to share the end result until it is edited and refined to a finished product. These people never share a verbal rough draft. The new stimuli they receive during a conversation enters a processing chamber where it is stored, considered and condensed into manageable material. This takes time and requires patience from those who eagerly await an explanation or a report about what’s going on.

Impatience at this point will cause the listener to jump straight into tell mode, as in, “Let me tell you what I think.” The lecture the listener delivers is usually not appreciated or helpful. Patience, on the other hand, combined with thoughtful silence, will usually produce a concise account of true feelings and ideas from a slow-twitch responder.

The silent treatment

To gain credibility, learn to give space and time to others before making your verbal contribution. Give the gift of silence and let people consider their actions and their words. Use phrases such as:

  • “Tell me more.”
  • “What else?”
  • “What then?”
  • “How so?”
  • “What did that mean to you?”
  • “How are you feeling now?”

These phrases will prompt the receiver to provide additional information that will provide you with a detailed understanding of people and situations. Not only will this build trust, but it will also prevent you from making incorrect assumptions.

Find an opportunity to use the phrase, “Tell me more.” Resist the temptation to respond with your own thoughts until you allow the receiver to tell you what is on their mind. The only assumption worth having is one in which you assume there is more to the story—it’s always best to assume you don’t have all the answers. Nine times out of ten, your assumption about the truth will never be as rich as the story you need to hear.

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