Two Ears, One Mouth

A silenced business man isolated on white

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

                                                                                                Epictetus

I’m guessing many of you have heard this quote or some variation thereof, and yet an occasional reminder never hurts — especially when you are in a leadership position where people are looking to you to be the one to speak … about the vision … strategy … goals and expectations … waiting for guidance from you to plan their next action.

And it’s not just that people expect you to do more of the talking when you’re the leader, it also gets harder to really hear. Depending on the culture of your organization people might, consciously or unconsciously, start telling you what they think you want to hear more than what they are really thinking. Or they don’t bring up a concern if they sense you have already made up your mind about some thing. Or they aren’t comfortable “speaking truth to power.”

How can you shift the culture if the listening:speaking ratio in your organization is out of balance? For starters (this one from the Captain Obvious category), ask! Too often, we expect people to speak up if they have a concern, and yet we never “give them permission” to voice their opinion because we never ask.

Secondly, respect their feedback. Honoring their input is not necessarily the same as agreeing with or acting upon it, but it does mean that you give their feedback thoughtful consideration. An eye roll, or chuckle, or quick dismissal such as “we tried that before and it didn’t work” is the quickest way to insure that you won’t get the chance for 2X listening because people will quit speaking up.

Third, be willing to dig beyond the initial comment. Following up with a genuine (as opposed to snarky or condescending) how, why, or when question 1) shows you are really listening and not just waiting for your turn to speak; and 2) gives the individual the chance to add depth or context to their initial feedback, making it even more valuable. In my experience it is often the follow-up questions, rather than an initial comment, that brings to light the heart of an issue or concern.

Follow these basic guidelines consistently, and you’ll be amazed at what starts to happen. In short order, people will become more engaged and bring their best thinking to the discussion. Better decisions will be made, and your whole organization will ultimately be more successful.

It’s a simple concept. Talk less. Listen more. Great things happen and you get credit for being an insightful leader. . . Enough said.

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