A good friend and classmate of mine in the Naval Academy, Steve Trainor, happens to run Google’s executive training. He and I were having a conversation about what he emphasizes with all the executives of Google. The issue is how we listen, and it’s applicable to all of our communities now in this country and around the world.
You see, there are three ways in which you can listen: we can listen to win, we can listen to fix, or we can listen to learn. Right now, more than ever, we need to practice how to listen to learn. Think about that for a moment. How do you listen?
- Do you listen just to make sure you can win your argument?
- Do you listen to figure out ways to jump right to the solution?
- Or, do you listen to learn and go on a journey of empathy to understand another point of view, which then will build trust?
Learn to Listen and Listen to Learn
Leaders listen with the intent first to understand and then respond—not the other way around. They never miss an opportunity to learn something new; they are continually asking themselves when they meet someone “what can I learn from this person?” This question makes them engaging and active listeners—it leaves people feeling like they are the only person in the room.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus has been quoted as saying, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” And, in his bestselling book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey writes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” The first step in leading is building trust—without it, you’re just a manager using your position of authority as a “stick” for getting the job done.
When it comes to building trust, leaders must be able to connect with people—all kinds of people—and empathy is one of the most powerful ways to do it, whether it’s one-to-one or one-to-many. The key to empathy is the ability to listen and stay present in the moment.
Stay Present and Focus on the Moment
So, by now, we all know that being present is critically important, especially in uncertain times. But why is it so hard and how do we master this ability? Well, there are these three “Whats” that I call “What Was,” “What Is” and “What Will Be.” First, I just want you to focus on “what is.” Neither “what will be” nor “what was” matter right now. Allowing yourself either to dwell on the past that you cannot change or fret about the future beyond your immediate reach is directly opposed to staying present.
Two other keys to staying present are the two F’s: focus and forgiveness—Not the forgiveness that you’re thinking of, because I don’t want you to forget, I just want you to forgive. You’ve got to forgive yourself and others, which will help you let go of distracting thoughts and feelings. Putting it altogether—Focus on the moment. Stay in the present. Learn to listen and listen to learn.
And, by the way, having to slow down and pause from our “normal” busy-ness is one of the greatest gifts of this quarantine. Look for the hidden opportunities to Be Unstoppable; and in case you missed it, check out my post, “Finding Opportunity in the Fog” for more inspiration.
The Perfect Storm with a Silver Lining
We are in the midst of unprecedented times that some have described as the perfect storm of global pandemic, unemployment, and racial inequality and injustice. The size and scale of worldwide attention to the death of George Floyd might not have happened without the past months of social distancing, isolation and interruption of busy-ness as usual. Unfortunately, the plights of Tony McDade, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are not a new phenomenon.
Record numbers of people around the globe are gathering in the midst of pandemic to share their grief, anger, fear, frustration and appeals for change. Poor and marginalized groups have borne the brunt of these storms, some of which have brewed for decades. We need to listen, we need to learn, and we need to act. This is a time that needs all of us to step up and show our solidarity and support, and not just until this storm has passed and we retreat to our comfort zones.
If you want to do something but are not sure how: Acknowledge your blind spots. Accept your discomfort. Understand your privilege. Commit to being informed. Know the difference between non-racism and anti-racism (and all of the other –isms). Take action, above and beyond posting a hashtag on social media, to support marginalized groups, whether they be based on race, gender, age, weight, disability or sexuality. Recognize that we are all human.
Above all, just listen. It may seem passive, but listening with all of your attention is anything but passive. When you are fully engaged and actively listening, you are completely immersed in what the other person is saying. Ask questions, withhold judgment, seek clarification, and acknowledge what you are hearing. This might be our perfect opportunity, our unforeseen benefit to the storm, to move us all together to make a difference.