The 1993 film Shadowlands has a telling scene in which C.S. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) talks with his brother about the challenge of establishing a relationship with the young son of the woman he hopes to marry. “I don’t know what to tell him or to say,” says Lewis. “We don’t have subjects in common to discuss.”
Lewis’ brother replies, “You don’t need something to tell or to say. Just talk with him.”
The insight stays with Lewis. The next time he and the boy are together they sit for a while in companionable silence. After a hesitant start a conversation develops. They listen carefully to each other. They begin to connect.
My work is primarily with business organizations, large and small, and I find that the principles of good leadership – and of effective listening – apply on every scale, from a workgroup of two or three people to very large organizations employing tens of thousands.
The key to organizational health and success is the way individuals are connected to and engaged in the life and work of the organization. Many studies demonstrate and confirm that engagement of employees is a powerful predictor of business success. This makes intuitive sense: the employee who is engaged will relate better with customers, will focus more carefully and effectively on the task, connect well with co-workers.
So what creates engagement? The key factor is the relationship with one’s manager or supervisor, and with the team of which one is a part. People need clarity about their goals, feedback and recognition, a sense of pride and belonging, and ongoing support and guidance. The leader who invites team members to express their questions, concerns, and ideas will have a platform of awareness and insight on which to build appropriate actions and behavior.
The manager who says, “How can I help you do a better job,” generally will build more engagement than the one who says, “Why didn’t you make that sale?”
The manager who says, “You handled that beautifully – it’s appreciated,” will build more engagement than the one who says, “Okay, make sure you do it that way every time.”
The manager who says, “What do you think our approach should be to this?” will build more engagement than the one who says, “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
A coach rather than a giver of orders, a listener rather than a lecturer, a colleague rather than a superior, a supporter rather than a critic – this manager will be rewarded with engaged employees, a strong team, and good results.
The Classic Myths
Some years ago I attended a conference where the keynote speaker was the CEO of a large corporation. After talking of the importance and value of communication to the well-being and success of the organization and its people, he described some of the ways he shared information and ideas. But towards the end of his remarks he aligned himself with one of the classic myths of leadership: “Of course, I only communicate if I have something to say, some useful information or idea to share….”
His error, I believe, was treating communication as a one-way process. In reality, if he truly had “nothing to share” then he had a perfect opportunity to listen, to initiate a conversation, to practice openness. He needed to be ready to hear questions, concerns, and above all, ideas to strengthen the organization.
Listening is at the core of effective communication, both at the individual and institutional level. Communication is too often about transferring information and not enough about sharing and developing ideas.
Many business leaders feel that “conversations” are too time-consuming and unfocused. Those leaders operate by providing information, seeking feedback and then making a decision. Give and take is missed. Development of ideas in a team environment doesn’t happen. Gradual persuasion and adoption of new beliefs has no opportunity to develop.
Listening isn’t easy. Most of us have ideas and information that we’re eager to share. It can take forbearance and patience to invite questions, input and ideas. But effective communication is built on an understanding of the other person’s point of view, so start the conversation by listening, if necessary prompting with a question.
“How’s it going?” may be all that’s necessary. When both parties are committed to this approach the conversation builds with a quiet, empathetic back-and-forth of discovery and insight.