Have your ever experienced being interrupted when speaking?

Have you ever started to pour your heart out to a best friend/confidante/partner/dog after a long day at work or a following a challenging situation and just as you get going, your friend/confidante/partner/dog jumps in and says “yes! I know. The EXACT same thing happened to me….” and they continue with their experience leaving you open mouthed and cut off.

Or, have you started to talk about your business and been unsolicited given advice from the person you’re talking to, without asking for it and without them actually knowing anything about your situation or what you’re seeking to achieve?

How did it make you feel?

Frustrated? Unheard? Mis-understood? Dismissed? Undermined? Not valid? Whichever of these most resonates with you, the outcome is that you were left not feeling great.

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is defined as paying close attention to a person when thy are speaking.  There are various definitions though most include listening without judgement, facing the speaker and having eye contact, showing that you are listening by gestures such as nodding, smiling and making small noises like “yes” and “uh huh” to show you are listening.

When I was in my early management career some (twenty!) years ago I underwent some training about good communication. Around the time I was doing some public speaking. The most pertinent bit that I took from the training was ‘active listening’. What I filed away somewhere in my subconscious brain in that moment was: I need to do more active listening when others are speaking so that they know I am paying attention and am on board with what they are saying because this will give them confidence and inspire them to carry on. And so, I was a very ‘active listener’.

Cut to a couple of years ago when I really committed to my coaching practice. During a training coaching session I was ‘actively listening’ and I made a noise which had the effect of stopping my coachee dead in their tracks. They literally stopped talking and not only that, they completely lost their train of thought. My active listening was actually an interruption which had the effect of breaking the thought process of my coachee. This is not good coaching!

Of course, now I am incredibly aware of how these micro interventions made when someone is talking, constitute as interruptions.  Whilst I say I am aware, it is still a work I progress to refrain from making them.  Old habits die hard.  What I have also become aware of is how often other people do it.  I have also become aware of how often other leaders do it.  This is important. In the working environment, when a person in a leadership role who has seniority and therefore power over another person, interrupts a junior colleague, the impact is one of exerting power.  This is irrespective of whether this interruption was intentional : I am going to speak over you because I am the boss, I know better and what I say is more valid and important that you and what you say, or if it was unintentional: I am actively listening because I support you and want you to know I am paying attention to what you are saying.  The impact is THE SAME. The feeling is THE SAME.

So why am I saying all of this?

Most leaders are born good people. Most leaders want to do the right thing and are driven by values and wanting to do a good job. Of course there are some leaders who achieve great power for their own purpose and gain with 12% of corporate leaders being psychopaths according to fortune.com (2021). But we’re not talking about the 12%. We are talking about the 88% who genuinely want to do the right thing. However, not all good people make great leaders. Just because a leader’s intentions maybe wholesome, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their behaviour will be wholesome.

I think this is why toxic leaders and toxic workplaces are so prevalent and why toxic workplaces are also so challenging to eradicate, because most good people who are leaders think that being a good person makes them a good leader. IT DOES NOT!

Good leaders are not born. They are made and developed and nurtured over lots of time and with lots of intentional effort. Good leaders make mistakes and learn from them. Good leaders develop keen levels of awareness, of themselves and of their colleagues – at all levels of an organisation. Good leaders operate with healthy ego (read my other blog post The Ego and the Value), good leaders understand the impact of their behaviour on others and they are acutely aware of the impact that their senior position has on those less senior to them. The greatest leaders are also comfortable giving this power away by delegating to others because they have cultivated the right levels of trust, in their colleagues and in themselves.

And of course I’m going to bring this back to coaching!

Without coaching I would not have developed the awareness of my active listening acting as an interruption – which is the EXACT OPPOSITE of the intention behind it. I find this fascinating. Coaching helps generate deeper levels of self awareness and also awareness and appreciation of what is going on for others. Every leader needs coaching. The question is, if you are a leader reading this, do you have the awareness to recognise you need it too?!

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