The other day a colleague sent me an email. It contained a photograph of a group of blue ribbons on a table. Each ribbon said, “I Survived Another Meeting that Should Have Been an Email.” I suspect my colleague and I are not the only people who see meeting announcements on Google calendar and are gripped with dread. Why? Because too often they’re not actual meetings but opportunities to pontificate. People prattle on, they dominate, they wander down intellectual rat holes dazzled at their own verbal skills while the rest of the group languishes, twitches, or gazes out the window. Why? Because no one is listening, they’re waiting to speak and there is a difference.
One of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters told us a story. She was new to the field and new to her job as the director of an active historical organization. After a board meeting, a trustee pulled her aside. His advice? Shut up. Just listen. Really listen. Too many leaders, directors and department heads think the appearance of listening passes for the act itself. But it doesn’t and even someone with lame facial recognition skills can recognize attention versus inattention. Being on the receiving end of an inattentive colleague makes some people angry. They would rather skip the interaction and send an email. At least then there is a record of what they said. Inattention leaves others feeling erased as if what they have to offer doesn’t really matter. Real listening means your thoughts actually respond to mine. You say things like picking up on what Joan just said, I believe……We build something as we toss ideas back and forth. We engage. We acknowledge each other’s skills.
Why does all this matter if you’re a leader as opposed to being a member of a department or staff? Well, skilled leadership inspires trust. Trust is earned any number of ways, but one way is by making an employee, a team member or a direct report feel valued. People who are never heard don’t feel valued. They feel dissed. They feel their time is wasted.
Today, in the age of distraction, there are very few of us who aren’t guilty of poor listening. Bad enough that our egos and our thoughts can distract us so magnificently. Now we have email, Snapchat, Googlechat, Twitter and so much more. So the next time you enter a room ready to lead a meeting for a group of overworked, overtired employees, try this: Ask everyone to turn off all their phones and close their laptops. Have them put both feet on the floor, hands on the table, and close their eyes. Wait 30 seconds. Then ask them to open their eyes. Start by asking the person on your left to “check-in,” meaning one or two sentences about how they are. (Another variation of this is Outward Bound’s check-in which involves telling the group one good thing or one bad thing about the day.) Both these activities require a slowing down, a focus on colleagues, and on who they are as people, not just their to-do lists. If your staff is given to too much information in check-ins, try asking everyone to close their eyes again. Ask them to start to repeat the alphabet, one person to each letter. If two people speak at the same time, the group needs to begin again. If the group really listens, they ought to be able to reach M or N.
Have fun. Let’s dedicate the next week to listening attentively and see what happens.