Leading by Listening

“You’re not listening to me.”
“Did you even hear a word that I said?”
“You’re missing the point.”
“Why do I even bother trying to communicate with you?”

If you have half a pulse, and you’ve actually interacted with other human beings, then you’ve either uttered some of these words to someone in total frustration, or worse, someone has uttered them to you with equal disdain.

There are a lot of things that can cause you to go “postal” as a student leader, from irresponsible student officers to apathetic faculty members. But nothing seems to hurt us more to the core than when our ideas and concerns are blatantly ignored or attacked.

Think about it…remember the last time you came up with a suggestion that could possibly increase student involvement, save the organization money, prevent a PR nightmare, or even make an event more successful? Then what happened? You and your ideas were either ignored like last year’s losing lottery ticket or they were attacked like they were a threat to national security.

Next to breathing, being heard and sincerely listened to is one of our deepest human emotional needs. When someone really gets your message and “feels you,” you feel valued and appreciated. And when they don’t listen to you, you feel unimportant and disregarded. Ever since we were kids, we’ve been striving to be heard, seen, and acknowledged. And although we don’t cry about it like babies anymore when we’re ignored, the pain is just as real today as it was then.

Ironically, when students usually ask me about becoming a more effective communicator, most want to know things like how to overcome the fear of public speaking or how to become more assertive and persuasive in a debate. To their surprise, I always tell them that the courage to speak must also be matched by the wisdom to listen.

Let’s face it, if you’re going to be an effective student leader, you must first master the art of listening before you can master the art of leadership. A leader without any followers is just a person taking a long walk…alone.

As I mentioned earlier, listening is at the core of our being; it’s also the most frequent form of communication among humans. We spend more than 75% of our waking hours listening, but less than 1% of our school time learning about it. I’m no math genius, but those numbers don’t reflect good common sense.

If you want your ideas and concerns to be heard and valued, you must first be willing to appreciate the ideas and concerns of others. It all starts with effective listening skills. The truth of the matter is that when you speak, you only know what you know, but when you listen, you learn what others know. Listed below are eight proven strategies you can use to become a more effective listener, thus improving your effectiveness as a student leader:

1. Listen with your heart, not just your head.

Some people have turned “fake listening” into an art form, with their orchestrated nods, perfectly-timed “okays,” and “you’re rights.” No one likes to talk to someone who’s mind is always somewhere else other than in their conversation. Listen “in the moment’ by stopping whatever you’re doing, facing the person, and giving the person direct eye contact.

2. Don’t just be interesting, be interested.

If you really want to give someone your undivided attention, listen so you can ask questions about what they’re saying. Watch how the other person responds when you demonstrate not only that you heard him, but you understood him as well.

3. Take action to avoid distractions.

Hunger cramps, fatigue, television noise, music, cold temperature, time pressures, slang, and several other factors are all considered communication barriers. Try to eliminate as many of them as possible “before” you engage someone in a conversation.

4. Persistently practice patience.

We can hear twice as fast as we speak, and this usually causes us to become easily bored. This explains why some teachers can cure insomnia. Don’t ever rush the speaker to “get to the point” (regardless how tempting it is). Try to listen for benefits that will serve you and your goals. You can start by always asking yourself, “What can I learn from this person?”

5. Keep your mind open and your mouth shut.

Nothing stops us from listening quicker than an opinion that is in total opposition to our own. Hold your judgement, and try your best to look at the situation from “their” point of view. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. You’re not always right…but they’re not always wrong either.

6. Listen between the lines.

We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” To take this cliche even a step further, it’s also what they “don’t say” that can be just as important. Make sure what people say and “don’t say” to you are consistent with their body language, eye movement, tone of voice, and speaking rate.

7. Focus on the content, not just the character.

Avoid stereotyping people based on how they sound. Southerners are not “always” less intelligent, a person who speaks French is not “always” more romantic, someone who uses slang is not “always” uneducated, and so on. Listen to the person, not the dialect. If you don’t understand, ask for clarification.

8. Put your ego on hold.

The next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone, pretend you’re both on a huge stage in front of a thousand people. Whenever one of you speaks, the spotlight is focused on that person. Your goal is to keep the spotlight off you as much as possible. You can only do this by listening.

As with any other skill, listening takes practice, patience, and persistence. If you focus on mastering these eight strategies, you are well on your way to becoming a student of influence. Not every good listener is an effective leader, but believe me, every effective leader is a good listener. So get going and start leading by listening.

Professor Joe Martin is the founder and president of RealWorld University (www.rwuniversity.com) – the largest college student success center on the Internet. He teaches communications and public relations at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida.

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