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Talk Less, Listen More

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One of the top skills for a leader to develop and cultivate is the skill of listening. So the message I have this month is to talk less and listen more. The best leaders are those who make the effort to be proactive listeners. They make the conscious decision to listen to those around them.

Wisdom and knowledge aren’t achieved by being the loudest voice in the room. Rather, they are gained through understanding what is being said.

The best leaders also have an exceptional ability to recognize what isn’t being said. They understand the underlying meaning of what someone is trying to communicate. This exceptional skill only develops when the leader is a good listener.

Our world of instant communication doesn’t really help. Today we have at our fingertips the ability to tell others anything that comes to our mind, at any moment of the day or night. This ability only exacerbates the “telling” component of communication, when in fact we need more of the receiving, or listening, component.

The ability to immediately tell others what’s on our mind has impacted how we communicate in all areas of our life. The value of listening seems to get drowned out with everything we’re saying. The problem is that leaders who aren’t focused on listening won’t be successful, leading to problems on a boat, in a department or in an organization. It’s hard to put your foot in your mouth when your mouth is closed.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of times when we have to tell others what needs to be done. We tell the members of the deck team what tasks must be accomplished, or the chief engineer states that the engineering team needs to disassemble the main engine, or the entire interior team knows it’s going to focus on a particular cabin for some reason.

There is a difference between instruction, explanation and communication.

Communication is the exchange of ideas or information. In other words, it’s about engagement with others. It’s the exchange component leaders sometimes lose sight of. Some feel that once they get placed in their role as a leader that somehow they now know everything related to their job through some form of divine intervention.

Unfortunately, this mindset prevents those leaders from listening to others, as they feel there’s no reason to. In reality, this leader won’t be successful due to their self-centered view. And don’t make the mistake of confusing hearing for listening. Listening is the key.

Put the following ideas into practice to become a better listener and a better leader.

  1. Practice. Listening is a skill and needs to be cultivated. No one will become an excellent listener overnight. Practice the skill for long-term success.
  2. Beware of emotions. We may want to jump in and try to point out that the other person is wrong or demonstrate we are right. We may become angry or upset with what is said to us. Fight that feeling to immediately respond. Acknowledge those feelings and realize them for what they are; it’s the ego that wants to step in. In a leadership role, setting emotions aside as must as possible is the best way to respond effectively. Think about the emotional side later. Listening means thinking about what has been said and thoughtfully considering the words of response. We may immediately want to comment, but we may not understand well enough at this point.
  3. Take time to listen. To do this, we must stop what we’re doing and focus on the other person. If we continue to text, email or focus on some other activity while they’re speaking, we send the message that we don’t really care what that person has to say.
  4. Listen to the non-verbal communication. Our body language speaks volumes. It’s not just the words people say that convey the message. Pay attention to how the other person behaves when they speak to gain insight into their true meaning.
  5. Leadership is about others, not us. Don’t worry about speaking; focus on what’s being said. It’s not good enough to give others time to speak if we only use that time to compose our thoughts and respond. Listen to be challenged and learn new things. Don’t listen to have an opinion validated or the ego stroked.

We are not always right, so why pretend to know everything? If we want to be listened to, show others the courtesy of listening to them.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (www.marineleadershipgroup.com). Comments are welcome at editor@the-triton.com.

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