A few months ago a CEO called and this conversation ensued:

CEO: “I’ve been told Frank is going to come into my office and complain about Steve. He thinks Steve is getting preferential treatment since we go to lunch together everyday. What should I tell Frank?”

S: “Well I think you should listen to what Frank has to say and see if he has any valid concerns.”

CEO: “Right, but he doesn’t.”

S: “How do you know if you haven’t talked to him yet.”

CEO: “Because Steve isn’t getting preferential treatment. I will just act like I hear him, say I understand his concerns and hope he gets over it.”

Now let me say that this CEO is one of the good ones. Don’t judge him by this interaction because normally he gets it. This was during a tumultuous time in the business and the CEO had many other things on his mind. He felt like he didn’t have time to worry about this and wanted it to just go away.

And it is during those times in a leader’s life when I find our capacity to really listen to anything beyond what our mind is focused on diminishes. This conversation with Frank and his issues seemed so minuscule to this CEO in light of everything else the business was facing that he just didn’t want to give it the time of day.

So he didn’t listen. He took the meeting, pretended to listen, thanked Frank for his time and didn’t give it another thought. Until it blew up in his face a few months later when he realized several people had the same perceptions of Steve and it created a rip in his leadership team that took a while to overcome.

Listening, really listening, is often the single most important thing we can do as leaders. We know this. We realize that we must listen. We have seen the memes and read the quotes about listening to understand rather than respond. We have heard speakers tout the powers of listening for decades. Nothing new. Nothing revolutionary. And yet…..

Today I received a call from a client who was in a similar situation. She knew that an employee was coming in to complain about something and wanted advice on how to handle it. More than likely, this employee just needs to get some things off her chest and so the first thing this leader must do is simply listen.

So easy and yet we make it so hard.

We all say we are good listeners, but I think what we often are doing is being patient. Patiently waiting for the person to stop talking so we can say we listened without actually doing it.

So I will ask you. Are you really listening?

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