In his search for truth, Gautama Buddha found silence an invaluable companion. It was “not wordlessness or noiselessness”, according to one account of the silence of Buddha. “It had a transforming power, permeating and filling the atmosphere around him with such intensity that people seated at his presence experienced ‘the ineffable and the inexplicable’.”
In such a harmonious state, it’s possible to hear what gets drowned out in the routine hurly-burly of modern life.
Unfortunately, too few leaders take the Buddha’s approach and cultivate deep listening skills. The constant distractions and brutal speed of the corporate world can make genuine listening a real challenge, but it’s worth persisting, argues Bernard Ferrari, a former McKinsey consultant and author of Power Listening. “It’s not easy to stifle your impulse to speak”, Ferrari says, “but with patience and practice you can learn to control the urge and improve the quality and effectiveness of your conversations by weighing in at the right time. Some people can intuitively grasp where to draw the line between input and interruption, but the rest of us have to work at it.”
Women are commonly regarded as being more empathetic listeners than men, yet to function effectively in our increasingly connected world, all leaders will have to hone their listening skills. “To bosses and employees alike, listening across cultures can sometimes be the most challenging communication skill to learn,” says business writer Roger Crockett. “But the less foreign it is, the less volatile — and the more successful — a workplace will be.”
The effort, though, is well worth it. “For leaders, listening is a central competence for success,” according to iconic business adviser, Ram Charan. “At its core, listening is connecting. Your ability to understand the true spirit of a message as it is intended to be communicated, and demonstrate your understanding, is paramount in forming connections and leading effectively.”
Charan, who has worked with many of the world’s top leaders, estimates that one in four corporate leaders has a listening deficit. “But this doesn’t have to be the case,” he says. “Despite today’s fast-paced business environment, time-starved leaders can master the art of disciplined listening. Conventional advice for better listening is to be emotionally intelligent and available. However, truly good listening requires far more than that.”
At the peak of his career, Lee Iacocca was regarded as one of America’s most influential and controversial business leaders, heading the Ford Motor Company, reviving Chrysler and pushing US exports during the 1980s in the face of Japanese success. He’s also quoted as lamenting, “I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen”.
Iacocca’s point: listening is at the front end of effective decision-making so it had better be taken seriously. Ferrari says listening is also critical in fostering innovation, because “good listening … is the key to building a base of knowledge that generates fresh insights and ideas.” His key tips: show respect, challenge assumptions and – above all – keep quiet. “That’s easier said than done, of course – most executives are naturally inclined to speak their mind,” he says. “Still, you can’t really listen if you’re too busy talking.”
Charan advises people to slow down. “There is a reason that, over the years, you have lost your ability to listen,” he says. “It feels too passive, like the opposite of action. It’s much faster to move to a decision based on the information you already have. But in doing so, you miss important considerations and sacrifice the opportunity to connect.”
Article By Josie Gibson
Image by Peony Yip of Behance Network