Listen Up Leaders
By Jonathan Gale, Ph.D.
Often people rise to leadership positions through hard work and the development of proficiency. Along with being knowledgeable and experienced comes the authority to tell others what to do, to lead by example and to educate. These are important leadership skills, right? It turns out, the most effective leadership skills actually emphasize listening over telling. How can this be, you might wonder? After reviewing the below model for how to utilize some key listening skills, make your own determination. Far be it from me to “tell” anyone what to do!
Listening as a leader requires a skill set you might not have developed, as it often is not inherently known. There are four key metrics for demonstrating listening as a leader, which, when deployed effectively, will engender followership in a way wholly different than you have experienced. Your staff will become more autonomous, thus alleviating your stress level. They will see you as a guide, but not necessarily the person to “fix it” or solve the day-to-day crises. You will help others grow, which will in turn provide you with much satisfaction.
The model is simple. To be an effective leader, all you need are OARS: Open-Ended Questions, Affirmations, Reflections and Summaries.
These are questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” They invite elaboration, information gathering and forward momentum for the rest of the interaction. If a staff member comes to you with a problem, first, seek to understand. Ask why, how, when, what. Through their verbal reflection, the staff person might actually answer his or her own question, or at the very least, understand the problem better and therefore be better poised to partner with you in the solution. Some examples are: “What would you like to accomplish in today’s discussion?” “What are your options?” or “What could be your next steps?”
Statements that recognize strengths or positive progress are affirming. They assist in rapport building, and your staff feeling valued. To do these effectively, you must be genuine and the affirmations must be congruent with what you are hearing. If you want to affirm a quality in one of your staff, listen for one and you’ll find it. For example, you hear: “Every time this one patient is on the phone, I get so frustrated because they want an appointment time when the hygienist is not available.” A strength you might affirm is: “It sounds like you really want to help accommodate this patient’s request.” Your employees will feel change is possible as they become more aware of their positive qualities. Some more examples might be: “I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today” or “You handled yourself really well in that situation.”
Reflections are probably the most important kind of listening skill, as they help you accomplish so many important things. First, to make a good reflection, you must really hear what is being said (verbally and non-verbally). Second, these show empathy and that you care! If team members, or anyone for that matter, feel you care about them and not just your own agenda or the next item of business, they will be so much more invested in the work you are doing together. They will want to maintain your positive image of them by working harder and in alignment with you. As for growing your staff into more autonomous professionals, reflections help them see the problem through your ‘objective lens,’ thereby enabling them to become more objective themselves, and better able to see solutions. Some sample reflections are: “It sounds like you are struggling with how to hold the office staff accountable while not seeming like a ‘micromanager” or “I hear you saying it’s hard to navigate all the responsibilities of your job in the midst of such change.”
Finally, summaries are a special kind of reflection. They allow for you to state back what you have heard in simplified terms. This, again, helps the staff to hear themselves and the issue objectively. Additionally, it allows for them to add anything that might have been missed, or recognize that something does not fit that had originally been included. The summary process reinforces that you care, demonstrates that you are not necessarily going to just ‘fix it,’ and helps grow a sense of independence and ‘can-do’ in your staff. This forward momentum created and perpetuated by your staff can be your greatest leadership contribution! One way to begin a summary statement might sound like this: “Based on our conversation, it seems that you would like to offer even better patient care, yet you are not sure how…”
To learn more about listening as a leader, consider leadership coaching. Listening is a skill to be developed, and will be well worth the effort when your job becomes easier as a result.
Dr. Gale provides coaching and training to enhance leadership skills, interpersonal communications and team building. If you would like to learn more, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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