If you remember the 1970’s, perhaps you recall the ABC television shows The Six Million Dollar Man and its spinoff The Bionic Woman. Both namesakes were saved from certain death through procedures that also gave them super strength and speed, but there were also key differences: Steve Austin got upgraded with super vision while Jaime Sommers received an implant that greatly improved her hearing. My entire elementary school agreed that while super hearing was okay, they should have spent a few more million to give the woman a bionic eye.
A lot of leadership “wisdom” agrees that vision (the ability to imagine what can be) is preferred to hearing (the ability to discern what others are saying). So much is written and said about the need for vision, but not so much about hearing, discerning, and focusing on what others are sharing. But what if listening is as important, if not more, than visioning? I believe listening well is critical for leaders because we can sense what is going on and what is going to happen far sooner by listening than by looking. Like a hunter who hears movement before seeing prey or a driver who hears engine trouble prior to seeing or feeling a problem, a leader can discern a lot by listening.
If it’s true that listening well is of six million dollar importance, then there are at least five opportunities for leaders to practice super listening:
- Listen to your critics. I am amazed how many leaders are blind to their greatest faults and deaf to their danger zones. What your critics say about you (and to you) can be the early warning signal for trouble. The challenge with listening to your critics is that it’s tough to discern what’s worth paying attention to and what should be dismissed. This is why we need super listening skills. When listening to your critics, you have to tune out certain noises in order to get to meaningful knowledge. I like to try and imagine my best friend or closest ally saying to what my critics are saying. If I can do it, then that’s a message worth tuning into; if not, perhaps it’s noise that needs to be tuned out.
- Listen to your family. Leaders have a tendency to pay most attention to the big shots and heavy weights, but it’s the quiet whispers of those closest to you that can reveal the most. Is your spouse sending signals of isolation? What are your kids saying about your character? And what’s in the silence? Leaders are wise to slow down and listen to the people who live with him or her day in and day out. Family doesn’t have a first row seat to your life, they are in the dressing room and behind the scenes when you are the real you, so pay attention to what they say.
- Listen to yourself. It’s easy to listen for advice and look for answers outside of yourself – with the experts and counselors who are quick with an outlook and often strong with an opinion. But another voice to listen to is your own. Too many leaders crowd out the quiet time that can be used for reflection. When you are alone with your thoughts, pay attention to what comes up. Work to quiet the cacophony of to-dos and focus on what is going on in your soul and psyche. A client of mine recently took silent retreat during which he finally heard himself admit how fearful he is of retirement. Rather than change the channel of his inner dialogue, he stuck with it and really listened to himself. It takes a lot of courage to focus on your inner voice.
- Listen to your staff. If you have staff or volunteer leaders in your church, try closing your mouth and opening your ears. Your staff may defer to you and treat you as if you are the one who should be sharing and they are the ones who should listen and obey, but strong leaders not only allow staff to share, they encourage and command staff to talk. Like a general who must listen to the front line troops in order to know what’s really going on in battle, leaders have to listen to those who are in different spaces than the leader. This is important in church and in business, where the isolation of leadership can deafen you to important voices of people who are in the know.
- Listen to God. Of course, the primary person we should hear is our Lord. One of the tricks with listening to God is that it’s often difficult to discern whether we are hearing God or some other voice that’s bouncing around in our brains. This is why it’s important to listen to God not only in prayer, but also in scripture and in community. And wise leaders listen to God not only when they are in need, but in order to know what their needs are. Instead of seeing a problem and taking it to God in anticipation of hearing a solution, try listening to God first in order to know what challenge or opportunity you should look at.
The good news is that it doesn’t take a six million dollar surgery to become a better listener. It takes valuing the voices you hear, closing your mouth and creating space for others to talk, asking some genuinely curious questions, and paying attention. Try it and see what happens.