Ticking clocks are the enemy of listening, and COVID-19 has turned life into a pressure cooker for leaders worldwide. Their businesses require more attention, their employees require more support, their families’ routines have unraveled, and their pursuits have been neglected.
The more leaders feel besieged, the more they focus on reducing the time it takes to satisfy their obligations. Focusing on saving time typically drives leaders to choose communication approaches convenient for them, which shortens their delivery and loses empathy for their audiences, creating more problems and demands on their time — continuing the vicious cycle.
As their attention becomes even more divided, especially in a digital landscape, how can leaders hone their listening skills during a crisis? Below are five approaches leaders can use to improve their listening skills when the clock is ticking in the back of their mind:
Fix Your Focus
How leaders define success before their conversations directly impacts their engagement during these discussions. When success equals concluding conversations quickly, leaders communicate accordingly. Audiences who sense this priority often feel devalued, rushed and defensive. Leaders can do two things to avoid creating these barriers. First, focus on the information, value, or commitment they need to obtain during each conversation. Second, convey respect and demonstrate attentiveness by removing any distractions from their conversations.
Listen for Hidden Value
People react the strongest to what they hear first. This is especially true for leaders whose success has taught them to trust their judgment above nearly all others. Leaders are especially susceptible to reacting to the first word or gesture that appears to confirm their pre-conversation expectations. As stress levels rise, communications often become unstructured, and word choices become less focused. These stress-related deviations can create false impressions. Leaders looking to enhance connections and obtain critical information will benefit from suppressing their initial emotional responses and listening for indications of fears, interests, opportunities, and withheld information they can capitalize on.
Remain Contextually Aware
Tunnel vision can be fatal when leaders are navigating complex and dynamic business challenges. Leaders who look back at failed initiatives or missed opportunities and ask, “What did I miss?” or “How come I didn’t know that?” likely ignored previous warning signals. Emotions, pressures, goals, fears, distractions, and even the room’s physical setup can impact how leaders interpret their observations and their resulting decisions. Context is king. It is critical, especially in high-stakes conversations, that leaders remain contextually aware of the forces impacting their audiences’ communication and their own perceptions.
Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast
Leaders create their organizations’ communication climates. They make it exponentially more difficult for their audiences to share sensitive information when they are perceived to routinely rush to the point, inquire judgmentally, and focus on confirming their own beliefs. Certified forensic interviewers routinely obtain truthful confessions, without the benefit of evidence, in under 20 minutes. Leaders can get critical information in five minutes or less when they employ the right approach. Questions can be perceived as invitations or attacks. Leaders should invest the first few minutes of their conversations in setting a calm tone, demonstrating understanding of their audience’s current situation, and ask straightforward questions that invite their audience to let down their guard and share the information leaders genuinely need to hear.
Listen for changes in your audience’s delivery
Slowing down their conversations and dialing up their contextual awareness positions leaders to significantly increase their powers of observation. Leaders graduate from collecting information to identifying strategic intelligence when they shift their focus away from saving time and confirming their expectations. Formerly unrealized indications of emotional shifts and withheld information become crystal clear. They will identify when their audiences are suddenly talking faster or slower and louder or softer. They will start pinpointing when pauses before responding are too long or too short in relation to the question. Additional alert signals such as unfinished statements, misplaced pronouns, and vague descriptions will also become crystal clear. These enhanced observations will highlight opportunities for follow-up questions, additional due diligence, decisions to avoid, and opportunities to seize.
Life is a series of solvable problems. Leaders can choose to focus on the problem, or they can choose to focus on the solution. Concentrating on the sand draining from the hourglass is a problem-focused approach that prohibits leaders from creating the opportunities necessary to obtain critical information. Leaders employ solution-based methods when they identify the objectives they need to achieve, create the communication climate required to receive essential information, and filter all of their observations through each situation’s context.