10 Tips to Develop your Leadership Presence through Listening and Attention
Are you too busy in life? Too much going on? Feeling unsteady on the teeter-totter of work-life balance? Too distracted by, well, all those distractions? I guess it won’t help much to know that you’re not the only one, despite your uniquely personal relationship with being overwhelmed. Feeling inundated is now a more constant state for most of us, relieved only by the second glass of wine on a Friday evening after the kids are tucked away.
Presence is about being fully present in the moment. If you have a minute, as you flail like a water beetle across the surface of your day, I have a couple of simple techniques to help you be fully present for the people you love, and the important people you definitely don’t love, but are still important. Like your boss. Here are the two things:
Notice how I kept that super brief because you don’t have much time? Now let me take a nanosecond to elaborate. By Attention I mean, noticing exactly where your attention is placed so you can re-focus it. By Listening I mean fully, deeply listening and proving it.
Let’s start with Attention. Most of us have difficulty focusing and sustaining our attention for more than a few seconds. My own challenge is batting away the madly flapping thoughts my mind dishes up at a rate of about 10 per second. The biggest step to focusing your attention on the right thing or person, is simply to notice where your attention currently is exactly. Our attention can bounce around with remarkable agility, especially when we don’t want it to. The main culprit is there is so much going on in our big and busy brains.
So, if I asked you right now where exactly you had placed your attention, what would you say? Your list of options might include: reading this sentence, an image your brain has offered that has been invoked by what you are reading, a short video of a conversation you had yesterday that has been bothering you, you look up as someone walks past, an edited re-do of that conversation with you saying what you really wanted to, your phone just buzzed (which sparks you thinking who it might be), a worry that you didn’t shut the garage door, a picture of your luvvly dog, Snuffles, a reminder that you need to phone your Mom, a new task for your To Do list for today…. And so on. I think you know what I mean.
The technique is to practice noticing specifically where your attention has flitted to. Once you have awareness of your own attention, you have a choice where to place it next. As soon as you put your attention on your where your attention is, it becomes an object of your awareness. So you have it, rather than it has you. This is within the realm of mindfulness, a very healthy practice that more and more people are adopting.
So, having noticed specifically where your attention is, especially if it’s one of your own thoughts, you can re-direct it to where it really needs to be. For example, on the person that’s trying to have a conversation with you right now. Don’t worry about losing an important thought. You are smart and capable and your intellect does not go away. But you do want to subdue the noise in your mind and restrain the many limiting assumptions, conclusions and beliefs that show up as unhelpful images and thoughts.
Now let’s place our attention on the topic of Listening. If you haven’t yet had the 'AhHa' - that attention and listening are intrinsically connected- I’ll pause for a second to let you have it now. Good? No wait, come back! (Dammit I’ve lost your attention). Oh good, now you’re back. As I was saying, attention is critical to good listening and you need to show you are paying attention. How? Here are a few Attention Do’s and Dont's to help you shift into great listening mode when someone says, “Hey Darth, can I chat with you for a sec?”:
- Say “OK” but not look at them.
- Keep looking at your smartphone.
- Reach for it if it rings or pings, or buzzes, or plays the Macarena ring tone.
- Look away. At anything.
- Interrupt as they get going to show you know something.
- Stop whatever you are doing, turn to the other person.
- Make eye contact.
- Have your attention guess what your facial expression is doing, and change it to a receptive, open, warm one.
- Retract your light sabre.
- Keep your attention on the person and the conversation they want to have. Let everything else fall away as if there is a bubble around you both.
- Make them feel as though they are the only thing that’s important in your world in this moment.
OK, now you are focused on the other person and NOT on what’s going on for you, or what’s happening around you right now. They have your full and undivided attention. Now you can really ramp up your listening skills with any of these Top 10 well-proven and nicely interwoven techniques:
- Keep quiet & let them finish. Especially at the start as they get going but also when you might be tempted to jump in later (probably still too soon).
- Show you are listening with your face and body (i.e. leaning in, nodding and saying “mmm”). Keep eye contact as much as possible without freaking them out by being too intense.
- Park your agenda as you begin to listen. Your opinions will tend to react very quickly like a yipping pack of wild dogs. Leash them. Don’t let the dogs out. Resist the temptation to pull the focus onto yourself.
- Stop thinking about what you want to say next. Really listen to their words and meaning. Your listening should follow where they are going, not where your assumptions believe the conversation should go.
- Be open minded as you hear what they have to say and what you think they mean. If the dogs are drooling, yank their chain. Notice your reactions and emotions and try to manage them if they start to take over.
- Choose to learn rather than judge. We can be devastatingly quick to judge, ourselves, circumstances, and especially other people. If your (now finely attuned) attention notices judgments forming, squish them like a water beetle by asking yourself questions such as, “What am I missing?” or “What can I learn?” or “How might I be wrong about this?”.
- Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. Don’t assume you know what they are going to say and why. And don’t assume you fully understand.
- Show empathy. This means considering what it might be like in their shoes. Know that you don’t know everything that’s going on for them, right now, today, this month, this year in their life. Speak empathy to attune with them and make them feel heard, for example, “Wow (or if you’re from Britain like me, “Blimey”) that sounds really difficult. I can’t imagine how that must make you feel.” (PS Extra tip here - If you say something like this, they will probably tell you how it does make them feel).
- Take a Coach Approach. At the core of leadership or executive coaching is the skill of asking insightful questions that invite others in. Asking great questions is not just for coaches though, it’s great for anyone who wants to connect more effectively and enhance their presence. So, just when you want to throw your opinion into the mix, why not pause and ask a question instead? This is a key shift from a mindset of knowing and telling, to asking and listening. For example:
- Ask into what you’re hearing to clarify & truly understand their perspective
- Ask into what you’re feeling or sensing about them, the conversation, the real issue, the real meaning
- Don’t assume you have the full story. Ask “Can you tell me a little more about that?”
- Deepen the conversation with a question like, “Can you tell me what’s really going on?”
- Or, “What are you thinking (or feeling) but not saying?”
- Ask how you can help.
10. Reflect back what you think you’ve heard as a question, starting and ending with something like “OK. What I think I’m hearing you say is..…have I got that right?".
And finally, here’s a bonus technique as a reward for focusing your attention all the way through this blog:
11. Make sure you W.A.I.T. Ask yourself 'Why Am I Talking?' Don’t take over their story with one of yours. It’s all about them.
These techniques of presence come naturally to us as humans. We all have them. We live to connect with others. But in a world of distracting static we can forget these caring connection skills. Managing where your attention is placed, and ramping up your listening skills will improve your presence both personally, at home with family, with friends, and at work as a colleague or leader. If you are an executive, with a crazy busy schedule, these moments of caring connection with other people are even more critical. For both of you.