Active listening is an essential skill for anyone who leads others. Ensuring others feel heard and understood is part of what builds strong teams, but I have found that when you’re having a conversation as a team or with an individual, listening to what they aren’t saying is just as important as listening to what they are saying. I’m not just talking about body language (though that speaks volumes), but rather the omission of information or opinions or what isn’t laid out on the table.
This is a unique skill. It requires leaders to listen, but also to use their knowledge of their team and organization to observe what may be going on under the surface. It also requires the guts to get to the deeper questions under the voiced questions, the strong opinion under the shoulder shrug, or hear something that frankly you may not want to hear.
My team has been going through strategic planning. Together, we’re trying to discern the best direction for our organization and make decisions for the future. We are typically a cohesive, cooperative group, but during these conversations one staff member in particular was extremely resistant to the process. Most interesting was that this is a staff member who I think highly of, is normally a great team player and strong contributor. But in these strategy meetings he sat quietly and didn’t say a lot, and he didn’t have much to offer.
Full disclosure: my first reaction was one of frustration; I didn’t have time for drama. In that moment, I could have just been irritated with his lack of engagement and led the group forward without his input, but instead, I asked him one-on-one if there was anything he wanted to share. He said frankly, “I guess I just don’t believe the bullshit.” This leader is passionate about providing quality care to the underserved and felt that our strategy conversations revolved around meeting only the needs of the more fortunate members of the community. Because I was listening for what wasn’t being said, I was able to receive the gift of feedback that may not have surfaced in a larger group setting.