I recently attended a workshop for organizational leaders where the audience was encouraged to interact and participate. There were about twenty of us in the room, yet the conversation was dominated by one gentleman in particular who was determined to convince us of his leadership ability. The rest of us had little to no chance to share our thoughts, interact with one another, or ask questions of the meeting leader or each other. Thus, what could have been an interesting and productive workshop turned into a fairly frustrating exercise.
I was reminded during this workshop about the inherent relationship between communication and leadership. It is not uncommon for people to feel that in order to establish themselves as leaders, they need to dominate a conversation. This is a misguided notion. The truth is that there is great power in being a good listener.
A good friend and colleague of mine facilitates workshops on listening skills. He does this fantastic exercise that never fails to get “oohs” and “aahs” from the participants. He places the participants in pairs, and he asks one partner to talk about some topic that is on their mind—something that is important to them, weighing heavily, etc. He then instructs the listener to do everything in their power NOT to listen—to basically ignore the person talking. As one looks around the room, one sees listeners turning their heads the other way, filing their nails, checking text messages, etc. He allows this to go on for several minutes, then he stops the participants and asks this question: “Who had the power in this situation?” In that moment, the participants realize that the listener—not the speaker—had the power.
The truth is that is always the case. If you ever watch a great negotiator, you will notice that they actually do very little speaking—they listen. Listening is powerful. Great leaders know this, too. Bill Clinton is frequently characterized by reporters, businesspeople, and citizens as one of the most inspiring people they have met. And without fail, the reason people give is never because of something Mr. Clinton said, but rather because of how he listened to them. Former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta told a reporter that Clinton “had a way of making every person feel they were the most important in the room.” That is great leadership.
How do you want to be remembered—as the person who dominated conversations (and, let’s be honest, frustrated people in doing so)? Or would you like to be remembered as a leader, a person who made others feel important? If you choose the latter, then make the choice to communicate effectively by listening more often.
Dr. Allison Friederichs teaches COMM 4070: Understanding Human Communication, COMM 4203: Adult Learning Theory & Instructional Strategies, and COMM 4020: Communication in Professions & Organizations at University College. She also co-hosts Mondays at 3, a weekly radio talk show about leadership.