Excerpted with the permission of the author of Love Works – Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders from Chapter 5.2
Miss Pray was my seventh-grade teacher at Woodrow Junior High School in Battle Creek, Michigan. She was in her seventies back then but sharp as a spear. Her thick white hair was always perfectly groomed, and her skin was taut across her strong cheekbones. She was intense, a disciplinarian who didn’t choose to smile much. And I loved her—she was a wonderful instructor.
One day Mom and I attended my parent-teacher conference together with Miss Pray. It wasn’t normal for the student to attend, but Miss Pray had requested my presence. I assumed it was going to be a great meeting. Perhaps she would bestow some kind of honor on me; after all, I had straight A’s and perfect attendance.
Miss Pray began the meeting by speaking directly to my mother and explaining that I was an excellent student. She said I grasped concepts quickly and was able to apply them in various situations. She appreciated my focus, attendance, and behavior while she was teaching. Things were going just as I’d expected.
Suddenly my eyes widened when she said, “Mrs. Manby, I wanted Joel to be here so we could discuss an issue together. I would like to speak to him directly, but I wanted you here so you could hear my words and help Joel become a better person.”
Forty years later, thinking about that conversation still opens a pit in my stomach. It came as a complete shock, and I had no clue what she was about to say. Miss Pray looked directly at me. “Joel, you are a gifted leader. I have seen many people come through these halls, and you are at the very top in your ability to gain people’s trust, take control of a situation, rally those around you, and get things done.”
I still wondered where all this was headed. So far it sounded pretty good, but I knew more was coming. Miss Pray continued, “However, you are a very poor listener. I have watched you take over a class project group when you were not even assigned to be the leader. Then, what’s worse, you didn’t listen to others in the group when they tried to speak. You interrupted them and often cut them off.”
She wasn’t finished. “I have also watched you on the kick-ball field during intramurals. You weren’t the captain, but you took over and wouldn’t listen to people—you just directed them where to go. Your friend Jeff was very upset because you wouldn’t listen to his thoughts about who should play where.”
As the truth of her words began to sink in, she made her closing statement. “Joel, when you don’t listen to others, it sends them a very negative and unflattering message. You are telling them they are not important. You are telling them you are better than they are. You have the natural ability to be a great leader, but you are going to have to fix your listening skills or you will be limited in how far you can go.”
I sat there in silence, a bit stunned. I felt horrible, and deep down I knew her assessment was accurate. Mom thanked Miss Pray for her care and concern, and we left. I never forgot that day. Miss Pray cared enough to call me out, and that made me a better leader going forward. I was failing to trust my classmates and friends, and that failure would have crippled my ability to lead.
Trust Me Miss Pray was right. When we interrupt or respond without taking account of what others have said, we send several messages—none of them good:
• My idea is greater than your idea, so I don’t have to listen.
• Interrupting you is okay because your response isn’t that important.
• I’m not listening to you because I’m already preparing my response.
The truth is this: interrupting is a sign of distrust.
That’s a strong statement, but it’s undeniable. Hard-driving leaders who often interrupt will always justify their behavior. “I already know where that person’s headed, and I want to save time.” Or, “I’m just efficient and don’t have time to waste.” If interruption is seen as simply being rude, many leaders don’t think it needs to be changed—a little rudeness in an organization isn’t the end of the world. However, when leaders understand that interrupting others shows a lack of trust, the notion of rudeness gains significance.
Would your employees or coworkers rate you as a good listener or a poor listener? Would they say you listen without interrupting? Would they say you hear them? If you struggle with listening well, as I did early in my life and career, these simple steps can help:
1. Don’t say, “I understand how you feel, but …” Most people won’t feel that you understand, especially if you discount their thinking and immediately move in a different direction.
2. Instead, summarize what you’ve heard. If you really trust them, they will agree with your summary and feel as if their idea has been given a fair hearing.
3. If you go a different direction, articulate why. Always try to explain your logic when differing with some of your team. They may not agree, and that’s okay, but you’ll all know what everyone is thinking.
Listening well is critical because it demonstrates trust and builds a team’s sense of camaraderie and cohesion. Poor listening is more than forgivable rudeness; it’s a breach of trust and not a quality of leading with love.
Joel Manby President and CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE) At HFE, the largest family-owned theme park corporation in the U.S., Manby and his team have proven you can get financial results and lead with love, generating a 14% annual return to shareholders while also helping thousands of employees in financial need via the company’s Share It Forward Foundation. 100% of the royalties from the sale of Love Works go to this foundation.
You can find out more about Joel and Love Works at: joelmanby.com
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