The unsettling changes in every part of our lives due to Covid-19 are an ongoing challenge to leaders personally and professionally. Then came our collective shock and ‘awakening’ as a result of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Aubery and with it, the global cry for a new dialogue on race, inequality and bias.
As leaders, we find ourselves struggling with our own feelings as we are expected to support and lead those around us – a daunting task. Even more so when current events continue to reveal bias and racism that is deeper and more widespread than a lot of us realized.
Although there isn’t a magic cure or secret technique to leading when times are challenging, there is one thing that we can all do better. Communicate. And by communicate, I mean LISTEN BETTER not talk more.
There are a lot of theories on communication and listening. I like the approach we take in ontological coaching which is to approach every conversation with curiosity, empathy and questions not answers. That means starting a dialogue without any preconceived idea about what the outcome might be and without an ‘agenda’ or idea of what you actually want to hear and/or what you really want to tell the person you are speaking with. It also means listening on a deeper level than usual. The example we are all familiar with is, ‘I’m fine.’
How many times have you used those words when you were far from fine? And, how times have you responded, ‘that’s good’ without noticing if the person you are talking to is fine or in fact, appears to be sad, angry, worried, happy, excited or perhaps simply fine?
To hear more in a conversation calls for focus and real interaction. That means putting your to-do list or next meeting out of your mind, ignoring what might be going on around you and really paying attention to the person in front of you. Look beyond the surface, pay attention to body language, facial expressions and gestures that don’t match the words you are hearing. When your intuition or ‘gut’ tells you something different from what you are hearing, get curious.
For most of us, getting curious requires a certain element of bravery because we are afraid that if we voice what we think we might be hearing below the surface, we might look silly, be wrong, or may even start a dialogue that makes us uncomfortable. Honestly, you may hear something that you didn’t expect, something that even if it wasn’t meant that way hits your personally, makes you want to defend yourself. The trick is to embrace the discomfort and lean into your intuition and empathy, make room for emotion – something we are normally discouraged from doing at work – and be with your colleague where they are.
Understand that opening a two-way dialogue doesn’t mean you will always be able to fix every situation or for that matter, that your colleague is suggesting that you are somehow to blame for their emotions. The best you can do is learn more about someone else’s life challenges and feelings and let them know that they have been heard. That conversation might lead to a more meaningful discussion that creates a space where you can know colleagues and teams better; where you can look for answers and actions and align to make improvements and changes together.
Finally, be prepared to be wrong and when you are, be prepared to listen and find out what’s really going on. As a friend of mine often says, ‘it’s ok to be wrong but it’s not ok to stay wrong!’ Your ‘wrong’ thought about a situation might be the ice breaker it takes to start a dialogue you hadn’t expected – one that leads to greater understanding and ultimately, productivity and trust across the team.
Now, ask yourself, are you really listening?