The Only Skill You Truly Need…

 In Leadership

As an entrepreneur and a leader, the list of skills you need to pick up in a very short span of time is only slightly longer than the distance between the earth and the moon. Lets face it! It is humanly impossible to become an expert at all the skills you need to gain, to become a successful entrepreneur. So if there is ONLY ONE key skill that you are able to really pay attention to, my vote goes to the art of active listening.

It is not for naught that the legendary Tamil Poet Thiruvalluvar praised the art of listening as the greatest wealth one could ever hope to gain in his couplet -

செல்வத்துள் செல்வம் செவிச்செல்வம் அச்செல்வம்

செல்வத்துள் எல்லாம் தலை

A rough translation of this couplet is as follows -

The greatest wealth amongst all types of wealth is the wealth acquired through listening and that wealth is the chief of all wealth.

Let me clarify what I actually refer to when I talk about listening. In the encounter between the speaker and the listener, If the power balance is naturally tilted towards the speaker, then the listener has little choice but to listen. For instance, you have to listen to your boss, your teacher etc., and in most cases, you automatically do so, smiling or gritting your teeth. But when the power balance is tilted the other way, i.e., the speaker is at a lower rung on the hierarchical ladder, and yet the listener really pays attention to what is being said — now that is what I would call true listening.

An effective way to truly appreciate this art of listening is to take a look at what happens when this fine art is not present.

Let us take a hypothetical situation — a meeting between an employee and his boss to discuss a new idea.

SCENE 1: Both come into the meeting with a head brimming full of ideas ready to impress the other with their newly acquired knowledge.

SCENE 2: An inattentive boss, having secured a listener, is naturally inclined to hog most of the conversation leaving the poor employee with scant chance to get his views across. The employee is now unsure of how to make himself heard.

SCENE 3: Miffed at the lack of attention to his views and disappointed at his failed attempts to make himself heard, the employee is bound to get into a negative emotional state and instinctively shuts down, hearing the words, but not actually listening to them.

SCENE 4: As the one-sided conversation progresses, the anger and disillusionment gives way to a more dangerous emotion — apathy. The absence of proper listening skills leaves behind in its wake, disgruntlement leading to detachment and apathy.

If this pattern repeats consistently, the boss can rest assured that the employee will soon learn how to disengage and become even more apathetic.

The main pitfall that most people fall into is confusing listening with agreeing. There is a tendency to assume that the more you listen to a person, the more you may be trapped into agreeing with their viewpoints. Only listening gives you the necessary tools to understand and process the information in the right way. Agreeing or Disagreeing comes much later after the information has been assimilated. Many interpersonal conflicts arise not because two parties don’t agree, but because they lack the patience to understand one another. A good understanding of the situation provides the pivotal base on which mutual trust and appreciation is built, which is a key element of growth.

Let us go back to the same scene above and see if we can do over.

SCENE 1: The boss begins by setting the stage for the discussion, establishing the expected outcomes and then proceeds to invite the employee to share his thoughts.

SCENE 2: While the employee makes his presentation, the boss only butts in to ask questions to either clarify what has already been said or to probe a topic further.

SCENE 3: A good back and forth, ensures that each is able to listen and understand what the other is saying leading to a healthy discussion. Even in the case the boss does not agree with everything the employee has put forth, the disagreement will be more palatable as genuine effort was made to understand the view point.

The meeting is closed with an agreement on the next steps, leaving behind a happy and a charged up employee who is all the more motivated to go and work on the action items.

Historically, power has always been associated with action — great kings and leaders have been celebrated in history books for their oratorical skills and warring prowess. Listening being a passive activity, does not naturally get associated with power. It is, however, the crux to establishing harmonious relationships and fostering synergy between team members all of which are key to success.

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