I received a really valuable piece of feedback form my supervisor the other day. She was sharing some important information with me, and I was listening intently; I also asked questions, provided some thoughts, and then prompted her thinking around steps she might take.
As I believe I’ve written about before, I really enjoy listening. Though I love to talk, I find hearing about others to be much more fascinating than sharing about myself. I also enjoy problem-solving, and while I don’t believe I’m any better at solving problems than anyone else, I find it to be an interesting exercise to peel the onion and look at all the layers, and the interconnections, in a given problem.
Towards the end of that day, my supervisor came in to me on her way out for the afternoon and mentioned how much she appreciated that I don’t simply listen, and that I actively engage, even in really sticky situations, in a way that doesn’t leave people feeling uncomfortable.
This was great feedback for me as it is an area I have worked on for a number of years. I used to be much more concerned with getting my thoughts out there, so much so that I wasn’t a particularly good listener. I think I’ve made great strides in this area, though in all fairness, I am much better at this professionally, than I am personally.
What was interesting, as I thought about her comment, was that being an active listener is a trait that all leaders need to showcase. But it doesn’t stop there. Active listening helps more than we could know as the listener, but in many cases, and certainly based on the structure of a given relationship, we need to be not just active, but participatory.
What’s the difference? As an active listener we are listening with true engagement. As a participatory listener, we are doing more than serving in a listening capacity. We are asking follow-up questions, and providing feedback of our own. Maybe this is just semantics, and the words don’t really matter, but I think that in many cases while our colleagues want us to listen in order to be supporters, they also sometimes want us to check their thinking, and that means moving out of the “listener” box into the “participant” one (at least on some level).
My supervisor is a phenomenal leader. In the five years that I have worked with her, she has taught me much about myself as a learner and as an aspiring leader. I was gratified that my work on being a more involved listener is not only apparent, but has helped me to become a better professional (and person) as well.