The Leader’s Posture of Understanding

I wrote in an earlier post about Stephen Covey’s habit, Seek First to Understand, then be Understood. Taking the time to understand another party is so important in setting the stage of building trust. If I don’t show any interest or effort in trying to understand you, why should you trust me? Especially if I am someone in a leadership position who will be attempting to move you in a agreed upon direction.

If we have a difference of opinion or perspective that is causing friction and inhibiting progress and momentum, then this difference needs to be addressed. Maybe the incorrect position is mine, maybe it’s not. Regardless, to reach an agreement, the differences must be discussed, and I need to hear you out, and you need to hear me out. As a leader, I should defer and make every attempt to understand your position first. To understand you requires, once again, some vulnerability and proximity. I will be “standing under” you. This requires a moment of submission, while I put my preconceived notions aside and listen without prejudice. I can’t do this at a distance. I must let you in, and you must let me in. But the leader takes the initiative in vulnerability.

Understanding means taking the time to seeing the matter at hand from the perspective of the other. I have to get into their context. “I see where you’re coming from.” It involves walking a mile in their moccasins. It requires some humility. Only once you have given your position and I have made every attempt to see it as you do, can I then give my perspective. By truly listening and understanding you, hopefully I have purchased the right for my perspective to be listened to and understood by you. Then, and only then, can a proper resolution be made. This resolution has a higher potential to be a win-win, rather than a one sided victory.

Empathy also comes into play. Not only must I see your perspective, I must feel it as well. In fact, one might venture to say that I can’t really see your perspective until I feel it. This takes much discipline, because empathy is a scarce tool in people’s emotional toolbox these days. Patience comes into play, as also the idea of being present in the moment. This can’t be rushed.

It’s also helpful that I, as the leader, approach the issue with an optimistic mindset, rather than a cynical one. I should give the you the benefit of the doubt. I should believe that you have the best interests of both parties at heart. Being shrewd is always recommended, (Jesus told his followers to be shrewd as serpents AND gentle as doves,) but a gentle hope in the other party complements any caution one might have coming to the table. Do your homework, be mindful, alert and aware, and take the time to be discerning. If any pretension is truly present, it will come to light .

Taking the time to understand the other is one of the best investments in fostering trust. Trust still remains one of the three core values needed to influence others. Take the time to stand under your people. This is the true posture of servant leadership.


The Gift of Listening

The Gift of Listening

If you want to make progress with people, you have to offer them a gift – the gift of a listening ear. One of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is Seek First to Understand, then be Understood. The only way to understand others is to listen to them. So shut up. Zip up your bone box.

In 1886 a young socialite had the honor of dining in the same week with both William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Both statesmen were running against each other for the post of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The press asked her of her impressions that the rivals had made on her. She replied, “After dining with Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest person in England. But after dining with Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest person in England.” ¹ Mr. Disraeli had the gift of making you feel as you were the most important person in world. As a result, the young lady felt affirmed and of value.

There are some ways to NOT listen. Do not “listen” and simultaneously be thinking about how you are going to respond. That is not listening. This is the same as shutting them out. When listening, don’t be looking around the room or area. Instead, give them eye contact, with a genuine soft smile. Have an open look to your eyes, don’t stare them down with intimidation. Don’t interrupt. Again, that’s the same as planning your words, only you could care less about what they are really saying. Also, pause three seconds before saying anything when it is your turn to respond. It will seem like an eternity, but it will show that you are processing your partner’s ideas.

A benefit of actually listening? You might actually learn something about your conversation partner. What if by listening you gained some insight on this individuals needs? As a sales professional, this could be valuable information. What if by listening you learned something about their point of view or position? As a negotiator, you might find a true win-win solution. What if by listening you discerned the persons fears or pain that has been affecting their behavior? As a family member you might learn how you could show them love with actions, not just words, (although words are necessary, too.) What if by listening you were told what their biggest problems or concerns were? As a public office holder you might learn a practical way of serving your constituents. If you are constantly talking, you are not in a position to serve and love those you are trying to connect with.

When you actually listen, the other party will feel respected. They will discern authenticity and genuineness. You will be building trust. If you respond with authenticity, you will show that you have the other individual’s best interests at heart. You will be seen and heard as being trustworthy. You will be able to position yourself to show love, respect and trust. And your opportunity to influence them will have grown considerably.

Real listening can’t be faked. You are either listening or you are elsewhere. You have to be present. As mentioned in the title, listening is a gift, and like a present, you have to be present in order to give it.

1. Olivia Fox Cabane, The Charisma Myth (Portfolio/Penguin/2012)