Leadership is a word that is used a lot in business, but it can feel pretty vague when you’re trying to apply it. It makes sense that a good leader is somebody who has learned good principles of leadership, but what exactly does that mean?
We’d like to propose a little word swap to help make it a little more simple. Our favorite word here at Narativ is “listening,” and we fully believe that listening is synonymous with leadership. With that in mind, you can narrow your focus a bit in your efforts to become a better leader.
This may be a little confusing. After all, to many of us, our concept of leadership relies more on telling: Telling others what to do, sharing your opinions on how to approach challenges, telling stories about successes to inspire your team. Listening is of course also important in that framing of leadership, but it can be hard to conceptualize how somebody can be in charge if they spend too much of their time listening. Here is where the first of our 4 principles of leadership comes in.
Principle 1: The Reciprocal Relationship of Listening and Telling
“When a liquid is poured into a bowl, the bowl gives the liquid its shape. Just so, listening gives telling its shape.” – Murray Nossel, Narativ Founder
To acknowledge the reciprocal relationship of listening and telling means we understand listening and telling to be mutually influential and of equal value. Now, this may seem glaringly obvious. “Of course, you can’t speak if someone isn’t listening, nor tell a story without an audience!” But just because someone sits across the desk or an audience fills seats in front of the stage doesn’t mean they are aware that how they listen shapes how you speak, and vice versa.
Everyone knows when someone isn’t fully present, which can lead to all types of reactions or interpretations (usually negative ones). In the fullest sense, listening is an act of valuing the intelligence of our counterpart. Paying heed to this principle, we check in with ourselves to ensure we are telegraphing that we are paying attention to our listener. Then they will be more at ease to speak.
Leaders who acknowledge that no telling can take place without listening, and that listener and teller play equal roles in the dynamic of listening and telling, draw maximum value from conversations at work—whether in individual employee reports or team meetings. Listening is top of the list of principles of leadership storytelling most critical to productivity.
You may have to sit with this principle at first to fully appreciate its value because it’s not an action item but a process of sensitization. Your acumen in the communication process will grow. With that groundwork in place, how do we proceed to listen fully and effectively?
Principle 2: Identify Obstacles to Listening
Anyone who has tried to talk in a loud New York restaurant knows that the world presents many obstacles to listening. Exterior noise is an extreme example; inner turbulence is more subtle. However, both should be addressed and released if we are to listen well.
First, we have to identify our obstacles to listening; then we can release them.
Hearing, seeing, and smelling can all present obstacles to listening. There may be a jackhammer outside, someone we’re talking to may wear an irritated expression, or there could be the smell of pastry wafting up from outside. Any of those can distract us from our focus.
These most often have to do with the body’s physical needs: hunger, needing to go to the bathroom, tiredness, physical discomfort or pain, sexual arousal, clothing that’s too tight or uncomfortable, rashes, feeling sick, or even having a bad hair day!
Internal obstacles include thoughts, memories, emotions, and feelings. You can have a variety of feelings in an hour—even within a minute—especially if you are upset or sad, or feel extreme happiness or joy. These can be obstacles to listening. Some of these obstacles are invisible to others and often to ourselves.
Judgments of others and ourselves make it difficult to listen and be creative. “I am not good enough.” “He is better than I am.” “She doesn’t know how to tell a story.” Opinions or strong beliefs of agreement or disagreement can interfere if the listener likes or dislikes what the storyteller is saying. Opinions about religion, politics, or other topics, and interpretations of all kinds may be obstacles to listening.
The relationships we have with people often shape the way we listen to them. At work, there is a hierarchy—and that’s a natural and important structure. Bringing awareness to how the hierarchy affects our listening is crucial so we don’t let it influence open listening.
Principle 3: Release Obstacles to Listening
Releasing obstacles is a gentle, light process. In fact, it entails nothing much more than to identify them with an attitude of practicality: They will get in the way, so we need to put them aside for the time being. We’re not trying to resolve them or psychoanalyze ourselves, but rather to immerse ourselves in the communication at hand.
Of course, we can do something here, too…
- If you’re hungry before a meeting and it’s getting in the way of your listening, get food.
- If you need to pee, go to the bathroom.
- If you’re angry at the person you’re about to speak with, find a sane and creative way to address the issue, so it’s no longer thwarting your attention. Nearly all anger is based on miscommunication, and everyone would (usually) be happier to not be angry and find a resolution. But if you can’t, just being aware of the anger can help in putting it aside.
Understanding how to release your obstacles is key to principle centered leadership on any level, but will especially help to improve the quality of your listening.
Principle 4: Listen with your body
Our bodies are an instrument of listening. This means that the more we are grounded in our body, the more full and open our listening will be. When preparing to listen, take a moment to prepare your body.
Take a breath, feel your feet on the floor, or backside in your seat, and keep your torso and neck naturally upright and relaxed. Be like a runner at the starting block: Poise yourself, then, just listen. Allow the full presence of the other person into your awareness. They will notice your investment and become more comfortable as a result.
This is among the smaller of the 4 principles of leadership in that it requires the most minor change in yourself—but the results will be astounding.
Principles of Leadership in Summary: Listening Begets Listening
Listening is a gift because it expresses value and respect. The person speaking to you will instinctively feel your attention when you listen fully, which creates feelings of appreciation and openness. This embracing of servant leadership principles can only produce better communication. Similarly, you will enjoy their attention as part of their response to the listening you offer them.
Aside from becoming a better listener yourself, here’s one important question you can use to introduce more listening into your workspace:
“Are you able to listen?”
Before an important impromptu discussion, ask your co-workers this question. It’s not rhetorical. By asking it you acknowledge that what you are about to say depends on their listening.
When they respond wIth a simple acknowledgment, “Yes, I can listen,” it lets you know that they will actually hear what you have to say. In our busy world, small markers or boundaries like this can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of our communication. More importantly, with effort, they can transform how we experience communication altogether.
Narativ is the place for learning to listen. If you’d like to learn about other principles of leadership that can help to make you a better leader and listener, visit our Storytelling for Leadership page to see how business storytelling can improve listening and engagement at every level of your company.