I was a lifeguard at a country club when I was in college. While frying my skin in the Nebraska sun, I sat in a lifeguard chair and listened to little kids yell at their mothers for hours proclaiming, “Look at me, Mommy; Look at me.” (That, and “Marco-Polo”). Their mothers seemed to have developed selective deafness as they visited with their mommy friends. This annoying refrain reverberated like nails on a chalkboard. I don’t think I was alone in wanting to scream, “Just look at them, dammit.”
Well, after a teaching and corporate career, I’m now coaching. And you know what? People still want to be seen. Most of us have developed more sophisticated or subtle ways of saying, “Look at me.” I help leaders become better leaders, and one of the best ways to improve leadership is to get better at seeing, listening to and validating others.
Most of us are distracted listeners. We’re half listening and thinking about or doing something else. Often our thoughts are about how we’re going to respond, if we agree, how we’re going to fix things.
With practice, we can become active listeners. This involves focusing on the other person, both physically and mentally. Our body language quickly reveals whether we’re truly listening or going through the motions. We need to suspend our judgment and our desire to fix the other person. One of my favorite sayings is, “listen to learn, not to win or to fix.” Going into a conversation with this intention can do wonders to make us better active listeners.
Some people, either naturally or through intentional practice, are intuitive listeners. The best leaders listen intuitively. Before I have a coaching session, I say to myself: “Be curious, be compassionate, be accepting.” By setting that intention, I can focus on my client non-judgmentally and listen with all my senses not just my ears. It’s amazing what people will reveal if you’re ready to listen. In the end, the biggest gift you can give another is to see them, really see them. “Look at me, Mommy!”