Generous Listening As A Contextual Leadership Tool
by Jennifer Hibbits
Driving home late one recent night, near the San Francisco General Hospital, I began to slow down as the light was turning yellow. At that time, I noticed a woman in the crosswalk who was yelling at me to stop. Her arms went over her head, she started to bend down, and the expression on her face was like I was going to plow right through the intersection and hit her rather than what I was actually doing, which was slowing to a stop.
My gut reaction was to yell out of my window and say, “hey you crazy bag lady, look I’m stopping!” Just as that thought crossed my mind, a moment of compassion came over me, which had me ask, “What must have happened to her in the past to have her react in such a way?” This story leads me to the coaching tip for this month.
I’ll begin with a couple of questions:
- With whom at work have you drawn conclusions or have a story about what’s wrong with them or why don’t they understand what you are doing?
- Have you been collecting confirming evidence for your story or conclusion?
(Note how often we don’t go around collecting disconfirming evidence!)
An alternative to this is to ask yourself:
- What previous experience or what frame of reference or how do they see the world, such that what they are doing is perfectly appropriate?
- What might I do to shift how they see the world or illuminate possibilities they can’t see?
I ask the alternative questions as a way of developing myself as a leader. The place to start is listening. What context are they living in? In listening to the other person, they are revealing how life, work, reality actually is for them. Not that their reality is right or wrong (true or false), but that it’s valid from where >they< see it. Remember that listening is not the opposite of waiting your turn to speak. Remember to practice listening with fascination and curiosity.
We all have “binary listening” when we wake up everyday. Binary listening is judging and assessing what the other person says as either right or wrong; there’s a winner or a loser; what they’re saying fits or doesn’t fit with what I know; it’s good or bad; it’s realistic or unrealistic. Sometimes binary listening is appropriate. Oftentimes we need to make quick decisions, judgements, or go with what we know. More often, we need to be listening to others more generously.
This is a place to practice. In your conversation ask questions like:
- What do you see that I don’t see?
- What would that make possible?
- Say more about that…
- What would that allow us to do differently?
In practicing generous listening, listen for:
- Linking their commitment with your commitment.
- Opportunities to share responsibility and partnership
- What’s missing that would make a difference?
You just might be amazed with what is revealed to you in what your boss, colleague, or jerky-person down the hallway has to say and how it could make a difference to you, your team, your project, or your organization.
Practice this with the people you think are difficult, disruptive, and annoying. You might be surprised by who you are in the conversation with and compassion just might come over you!