Being an active listener is hard.
I work as an HR consultant/trainer for some incredible firms (including KinetixHR, Recruiting Toolbox, and naturally, Dawn Burke HR). Whether conducting training for corporate leaders, HR pros, recruiters, hiring managers, or coaches, there is one significant obstacle all face and struggle to conquer – active listening.
My eight year-old-niece would say, “a-doy.” My husband would say, “no, s**t, Sherlock.”
If this is so common, why haven’t we wrestled this problem to the ground yet? Again, active listening is incredibly hard. But so is figuring out our federal taxes, yet a majority of us do. Likely, because if we don’t pay our taxes, there is a gnarly consequence waiting to bite us just around the corner.
However, isn’t there a terrible consequence for leaders who don’t overcome the overt compulsion to talk all the time at the expense of listening. Or who has the need to give advice before understanding what information is being asked? Aren’t the consequences to your team’s effectiveness, your ability to obtain results, and your credibility just as gnarly? Yes.
I was helping conduct a leadership coaching training where participants were asked to do a simple practice whenever they coach. They were asked to begin a coaching session by stating what behavior/issue/action they observed the employee do, and then simply be quiet. More specifically, the participants were asked to state what they saw, be quiet, and listen for a response.
At first, they couldn’t do it. More interestingly, the participants didn’t want to do it, for it was just too uncomfortable. The compulsion to talk, to advise, and to “lead” (aka tell) the employee to the right answer was too strong. And their reaction wasn’t unique. This has been the case over and over again for a variety of groups over a variety of disciplines.
Here is the hard truth. If any of us in the people business doesn’t, with great focus and intention, continuously develop our listening skills, then we are merely pretending to lead. Now, pretenders can be sufficient to a point, for when we are developing skills, we have to fake-it-till we make it for a while. But eventually, you have to master foundational skills, or you are a pretender. In my opinion, a foundational leadership skill is active listening.
Leadership pretending is like throwing a cherry pop-tart in the toaster and believing you’re an educated chef. One who created a one-of-a-kind pie with a “uniquely” thick crust. I mean, you did technically cook something sort of like a pie that was edible that people ate, but you are not a seasoned chef. You are pretending to be better than you are.
Truth is – all of us want to be better listeners – but since it’s not measured, we don’t frame it as a fundamental skill to must MASTER before you get your first job. I’m afraid until business schools have intensive curriculums in listening, consulting, and psychology for their students or credentialing organizations to make active listening a requirement to pass the exam, the well-intentioned yet “Pretend Leader” will still have a grasp in our workplaces.
Dawn Burke, VP of Talent Consulting at Kinetix and founder/advisor for Dawn Burke HR, is an HR leader, speaker, and writer specializing in new HR practices, engagement and workplace culture. Her HR/recruiting/leadership career has spanned the last 20 years, with past gigs including a foundational role as VP of People for Birmingham, AL’s award-winning technology company, Daxko (And yes, Kris Dunn and Dawn are making Bham the HR capital of the world! Who knew?). You can also check her out at DawnHBurke.com and a variety of other interesting places. Google her, it’ll keep you posted on what she is up to.
Most importantly: She is addicted to TV, knows most of the lyrics to Hamilton and West Side Story, loves to cry at movies (check out Cinema Paradiso for a cry fest!), thinks wine, a wheel of Brie and Milk Duds make a well-balanced dinner, and sings in her car daily. Her husband and cat are the Yin to her Yang.