Lead Through Listening

By David Benzel

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 jumped in the car, and slammed the door, the father asked, “How was practice?”  The boy replied, “I hate my coach.”  This kind of response did not sit well with Dad. Three thoughts rushed to his head, all fighting to be delivered in a correcting tone. First, “I’ve taught you not to speak so disrespectfully about any coach or adult.”  Second, “Are you kidding? This guy is a great coach - one of the best!”  Third, “Do you have any idea how hard I worked to make sure you were placed on this guy’s team?”  For some reason, Dad chose not to speak any of those condemning thoughts, and instead 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 wasn’t getting the whole story yet, so he added, “What else happened?”  Eventually - and it took a little while - they got to the part where the son admitted to getting side-tracked during practice, got caught goofing off during one of the drills and was reprimanded for it. In the final analysis, his young son was so embarrassed by the coach’s reprimand in front of the other players that it led him to declare, “I hate my coach.”

The point is this: Dad’s first, second and third thoughts - if delivered immediately -would have missed the mark by a mile. They were totally irrelevant in view of the facts, which would never have been revealed if he’d blurted out his all-knowing speech. He had been guilty more than once of jumping the gun with a quick response, but he learned so much more on this occasion with just three little words: “Tell me more.”  The complete story gave him much more insight into his son, how he thinks and how he reacts.

As a business leader, you have the same responsibility a dad 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 whom you’re talking to.

When it comes to sharing thoughts and feelings about an event, there are two very different types of personalities. In both cases, the “tell-me-more” approach works well, but the timing needs to be different.

The Fast-Twitch Responder: Some people tend to think their thoughts out loud for everyone to hear - often in a very blunt fashion - then they do the editing in public, too; “Here’s what I really mean”, or, “Let me rephrase that.”  They might revise their initial version of the facts several times. Typically, they quickly offer the information you’re seeking so it may seem as though very little patience is required on your part. They don’t make you wait very long, yet immediately jumping in with your assumptions drawn and conclusions blazing will most often prove to be a mistake. This conversation is a work-in-progress for this 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 next will be worth the wait, as feelings and thoughts become clearer in the mind of this fast-twitch responder.

The Slow-Twitch Responder: Other 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 in conversations enters a processing chamber where it is kept, considered and condensed into manageable material. This takes time and requires patience by 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 nor helpful. On the other hand, patience combined with thoughtful silence will usually produce a concise account of true feelings and ideas from a slow-twitch responder.

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 like: “Tell me more.” “What else?” “What then?” “How so?” “What did that mean to you?” “How are you feeling now?” These phrases will prompt more information, which will give you a detailed understanding of people and situations. Not only will this build trust, but it will also keep you from making incorrect assumptions about people and events.

Find an opportunity to use the phrase, “Tell me more.”  Resist the temptation to respond with your own thoughts until you allow them to tell you what’s on their minds. The only assumption worth having is one when you expect there’s more to the story, not one when you think you have all the answers. Nine times out of ten, your best guess about the truth will never be as rich as the story you need to hear.

Read other articles and learn more about David Benzel.

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