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Listening is a leadership skill

JYOTI BACHANI

COMMUNICATION is a key leadership skill that can determine whether a leader is successful or not. A phone call by the US President can lead to an official inquiry just as a tweet with 140 characters can cause a Twitter storm around the world. Effective communication is so critical that even a gifted public speaker like the former US President Barack Obama would rely on teleprompters to ensure that his speeches landed exactly as intended with every word just right. Speechwriters and editors are on staff to help leaders craft their message.

In the current age of exploding digital media and multiple channels, expert media consultants advise leaders on their media strategy. The leaders choose their messages and the medium. Depending on the message, it may be best delivered as a live or recorded speech, or a written press statement or social media post, maybe a tweet, or delivered live at some public event, or maybe a television appearance, either on a news show or a late night comedy show, if not a routine or special broadcast. Social media may be used when effective visuals and memes can spread something rapidly, peer to peer. There are many choices and different considerations for choosing the right platforms to deliver the message.


All communication help offered to leaders is based on one of the following: crafting the right message and choosing the channel by which to broadcast the message to the target audiences. This is based on a very top-down hierarchical model of communication. The leader has all the answers and only needs to broadcast them to the followers. This model is failing rapidly. It is creating a divisive world. Everyone is on their soapbox peddling their solution to the world’s problems. The competition among solutions leads to a fight for people’s attention. An info-graphic is replacing power point presentations.

Unreliable information crowds out the reliable message. The audience fails to engage beyond the sound-bite or the meme as their attention span is also dwindling.

My research from Silicon Valley shows how the most important aspect of communication is neglected by all these methods: the art of listening. Communication is a two-way process, where one person sends a message and the other person receives it. When the receiver gets the wrong message or misinterprets it, the communication breaks down. Effective communication requires the ability for both parties, the sender and receiver, to engage. In the 21st century, we are living in a highly networked environment with ease of connection. The communication methods developed in and for a hierarchical world are not right for the networked world.

Today, an effective leader is only able to lead his followers if she can articulate their true concerns and represent their shared collective ideals. The leader needs to listen to her followers in order to know their concerns. Listening is an important part of good communication. It is the missing piece in all the leadership communications methods.

Listening is key in a networked world because followers are not mere sheep to be herded by the leader. We are human beings with capacity to think, feel and speak up to communicate our concerns, issues, ideas and create potential solutions too. Leaders can be more effective if they set up routines to listen to those they wish to lead. It can be as simple as setting aside time in every meeting to just check-in and ask attendees to quickly share what is up. Listening can involve active listening where the leader reflects back what she has heard to the other party. A deeper level of listening is empathetic listening, where the leaders listen not just to the word spoken but also to get to the feeling behind those words, by paying attention to the tone and other features. We need to bring our whole human self to work and by having listening sessions in organizations, we can take a step towards humanizing management.

Jyoti Bachani is an associate professor at Saint Mary’s College of California (a Lasallian institution), a founding member of the US chapter of the International Humanistic Management Association (of which De La Salle University is a part) and a graduate of London Business School and Stanford University. She serves on the board of Journal of Management Inquiry. Email: bachani.jyoti@gmail.com

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