Strengths-Based Listening: The Importance of a Leader Who Listens
There is a great line about listening in the movie Pulp Fiction. In the scene Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) meets Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and the first thing she asks him is, “When in conversation, do you listen, or do you just wait to talk?” He thinks about it and then responds, “I wait to talk, but I’m trying to listen.”
I’ve thought about that line A LOT over the past 25 years since that movie came out. Like Vincent, I TRY to be the type of person who listens, but more often than I care to admit, I find myself just waiting to talk: To share what I know, offer advice, a quick joke or funny observation, or otherwise just wait my turn to add to the conversation.
But listening is something entirely different. It’s a powerful way to make a connection, to learn and gain clarity about a person or problem. And ultimately, someone who listens is better able to further their mission or reach their goals.
In this episode, we talk about the importance of leaders who listen. We define what listening is, why it’s so difficult, why it’s so incredibly important, and then share a few observations we’ve made about the impact we can ALL have when we listen for and with our Strengths.
What is Listening?
The definition of listening is to “give one’s attention to a sound.” It is paying attention to sensory stimuli. Listening is giving attention to another and what they are seeking to communicate. Listening is also closely tied to self-esteem, self-image, belonging, and meaning. As leaders of people and organizers, listening closely is also tied to Radical Empathy.
Radical empathy means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart. It means to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. It’s not about you or about what you think, it’s the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.
Why is it important to consider Strengths in a conversation about listening? Consider the best purchase you made for this time of working from home. It’s likely that purchase really helped your home office setup and improved your quality of work and life. Knowing our Strengths is another tool or accessory for opening another dimension to listening. Our Strengths give us understanding, awareness, bias, and clarity to everything we do.
There are no listening Strengths. All Strengths listen and have the ability to listen better. Pause to consider what Strengths of you listen with and give you insight into what you value.
Why Can it be so Difficult to Listen?
It takes energy. Have you ever been tired when you finish having a ‘tough conversation’? Or energized by a conversation that was funny, familiar, and upbeat? One takes a lot of energy and the other creates energy. Empathetic listening requires courage — the willingness to let go of the old habits and embrace new ones. But once acquired, these listening habits are the very skills that turn would-be leaders into actual leaders.
It’s is not from our perspective. We are designed to protect ourselves, and when listening we will prefer to listen to what is easy and non-threatening. is wired to do exactly what active listening discourages: evaluate input, predict outcomes, make judgments and perform triage, all on a moment-to-moment basis. That mode of functioning, according to recent thinking in cognitive neuroscience, evolved as the brain’s strategy to use its finite neural capacity efficiently.
Listening empathetically goes against the grain of the brain. Have you ever been introduced to something new by someone else, only to be disappointed? To listen to and from another person’s perspective, interpretation and feelings is one of the more unnatural ways of thinking. We would rather listen to what is familiar.
In the 2020 book of the year Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson writes,
“Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it. Empathy is no substitute for the experience itself. We don’t get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that they are not in pain. And people who have hit the caste lottery are not in a position to tell a person who has suffered under the tyranny of caste what is offensive or hurtful or demeaning to those at the bottom. The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.”
Why is Listening so Important?
We learn what’s important to us. Listening ultimately puts us in the place of bringing honor and dignity to the other person. Listening is being open to another, in a humble position with another, to invite someone to your table and let them eat first. This act is almost counterintuitive to our social media culture and opinion-based media.
We grow. We become better people. We feel, learn, become curious, and develop doubt.
We can use our privilege to serve and speak on behalf of others who are not listened to well. People who are not heard or listened to often don’t have an amplified voice or a voice that is heard. We can use privilege to amplify the voices of others so that they can be heard.
When listened to, people tell us that they feel engaged, paid attention to, and valued. We regularly have one-hour conversations with people where we listen to what they are saying and what they are not saying. We listen for the person’s Themes of Strength and we are also giving them a chance to listen to themselves recount or story or describe a relationship. We frequently ask the question: “what do you hear yourself saying to yourself?
Strengths-Based Listening at Leadership Vision
To mature as a leader is to increase your ability to listen. Our challenge to leaders is to expand your capabilities of listening to really begin to familiarize yourself with the voices of others. Remember, all Strengths have the capacity to listen. How can you grow that capacity through your Strengths and the Strengths of others?
At Leadership Vision, we practice Strengths-based leadership when we listen:
To people. We help uncover what a team member or leader might be saying. And sometimes it’s met with a question/statement like “That’s what you are thinking?” Strengths-based listening promotes curiosity and awareness.
To teams. We try to listen to the team narrative that sometimes people don’t know they are contributing to or writing. Listening helps team members make connections to each other and be more productive.
To cultures. Often we are called in to help a team with a challenge or around a problem. Leaders want to talk about structure, but a cultures’ problems or a culture’s potential are communicated through language or individual actions/behaviors. We want to press pause on the narrative we hear so we can listen, learn, and reflect back.
Are You Listening Through Your Strengths?
Better listening brings new understandings about ourselves. It brings greater awareness of stories and origins, and ‘a-ha’ and ‘why’ moments. How are your listening skills? Are you listening to yourself and to others? And can you improve listening through your Strengths? We’d love to hear from you and learn more. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with us on social media, or comment on this blog.
About The Leadership Vision Podcast
The Leadership Vision Podcast is a weekly show sharing our expertise in the discovery, practice, and implementation of a strengths-based approach to people, teams, and culture. We believe that knowing your Strengths is only the beginning. Our highest potential exists in the ongoing exploration of our talents. Subscribe to the Leadership Vision Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Please contact us if you have ANY questions about anything you heard in this episode or if you’d like to talk to us about helping your team understand the power of Strengths.
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