When I worked in a global banking and insurance organisation, someone told me I had the Cassandra Complex. No, not the European electro-goth-industrial band, but the inability to convince others of the validity of my arguments; named after a character in Greek mythology. So in the last 15 years I’ve spent a lot of time working out how to best influence others. If I had a penny for everyone who said “my boss just doesn’t listen” I’d be writing this from my yacht moored by the Mediterranean Sea. The phrase that would also pay for the penthouse in the harbour is “my boss talks too much.” These phrases create frustration as they dis-empower us and reduce our emotional resilience. So how can you benefit from listening to your boss and be more successful at boss taming, as well as improve your leadership?
The biggest problem is sharing knowledge, understanding and learning. We may have all the answers, the difficulty is to get them across in ways that others will be receptive to. This is the toughest challenge educators face in the 21st century, because people are better-educated than ever before; the downside of which is, we all think we know it all… It sounds counter-intuitive – we want our boss to listen to us and yet, paradoxically, we achieve more by listening better.
When we really listen to each other here’s what we achieve:
- We create a chemical connection: good listening builds rapport: feelings of empathy, connection and wanting to support others come from good listening
- Listening and rapport are two-way connections: the chances are that the other person is feeling what you’re feeling, they just may not interpret it the same way as you
- Language helps us interpret and explain what we’re feeling: there’s no need for ambiguity and we can check in with each other
- Being listened to helps: talking about things helps us clarify, simplify and prioritise our choices and actions
- Good listening builds better social networks: people believe they’ve had a better conversation when they’ve been listened to (which means they like you for it)
However, as I’ve mentioned before, this isn’t about being a doormat; it’s about active listening. You’re not there just to be a perpetual sounding board for your boss; it’s about you being heard too – so that you can be more influential and more successful in delivering.
Before I describe the steps, I’d like to offer you my three top tips for listening; there are many layers of listening and these are my priorities when I’m with my coaching clients or teaching leadership skills:
- Listen for the data– make sure you’ve heard the facts right
- Look for emotions – these are often unspoken, hidden in the body language – so keep your eyes open as well as your ears
- Be alert to interference – your own mind may be chattering along as your boss is speaking (“I gave her that report last week…” “He’s lost my email, again.”) When you hear your mind interrupting, re-focus your attention back to your boss – it will help, I promise.
So here are the four easy steps
1 Signal that you’re going to listen: saying things like “Would you like to take a minute just to vent/get it off your chest?” or “How would it be if I listen for a minute and promise not to interrupt?”
- Saying “take a minute” signals the time-limitation
- Offering not to interrupt signals that the focus is on them
- However tempting, don’t jump in – even with solutions – hold those for later when s/he is more receptive to them
2 Reflect back key words and emotions you hear: use the exact words they used – but just the high (or low) points, don’t repeat word for word.
- If they said “nightmare” reflect back – “I hear that’s a nightmare for you”
- If they said “urgent” you could clarify – “What’s ‘urgent’ look like?”
- This is the chance to check the data – “The finance report by Friday at 5”
- Don’t try to summarise, analyse or diagnose – let your boss do the thinking work by letting them talk
3 Check that you’re on the right track (or not): rhetorical questions often help – especially if you use the technique to hand back the talking to your boss:
- “Is this making sense?”
- “Am I reflecting back what’s really important to you?”
- If you want to challenge an idea you might ask “How about I play devil’s advocate for a moment?”
4 Seed the idea of them listening to you
- You can start with small nudges: “Would you like me to listen, or throw ideas as you go along?”
- You can make this a habit: “All right if I throw in a few thoughts, like I usually do?”
- You can make the important connections “Can we explore how this fits into the other priorities we’ve got on?”
- “I’ve got a couple of preliminary thoughts on this, do you want to hear them?” This last seed gives your boss choice and control – they may not want to hear your great ideas right now; maybe they want them down on paper. On the other hand, you’re doing exactly what so many bosses want – bringing them solutions, not problems.
The CIA – Control, Influence and Acceptance
At each stage the aim is to find out where you have control or influence over the conversation, and to accept where you have none. It’s hard work when we try and wrestle control from others – especially when they’re the boss. Sometimes we can only influence a conversation, not control it. And sometimes it dawns on us that we have neither control nor influence, and acceptance comes as a blessed relief.
The third most-used phrase that would buy the sports car is “My spouse doesn’t understand me.” These listening techniques not only improve our bonds with our boss, they save personal relationships too. All in all, when we’re trying to make our own world of leadership easier, listening to people is one of the simplest boss-taming strategies there is. In my next blog, I’ll explore how we can extend these techniques to successful boss-taming in meetings.