Do You REALLY Understand?

Listening to understand people is not easy because we all have the urge to respond and give advice or feedback. 

Believe me, listening to understand a person goes a really long way, especially if emotions and concerns are involved.

How do we understand what true connection with another person really is? First of all, to connect with one of our team members, we must do most of the listening, and they must do most of the talking. We listen with the intent to understand, not to respond.

That is what highly effective and servant leaders do. It’s important not to give any opinions. So, we don’t agree or disagree with what our team member is saying, we are just understanding.

If your team member is talking and they start to become emotional, which is highly unlikely, we must acknowledge that we are listening to them. They might be happy, sad, angry, fearful, or jealous.

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Or, they might stop trusting a person. Either of those emotions should trigger us to react in a way that shows them we totally understand. We have taken on board what they are saying and feeling.

1. Building Trust

In my experience, to be able to show that you care, you will first have had to build trust. Then you must build a relationship with your team member. If you haven’t, then this conversation will be very difficult, as I have found in the past.

It is very important that your team member feels safe to be expressing their emotions with you. They must be 100% certain that you “have their back”.

Is your current boss first concerned with understanding you and the team before himself/herself? Or, is he/she more concerned that you and the team understand him/her first? Obviously, if it was a choice, you would prefer to have your boss put you and the team first and try to understand you.

That is what a highly effective leader would do. I have worked with so many bosses who have put themselves first. They made sure that we understand them before they understand us. It is not a nice feeling. Do you put yourself or your team first when it comes to understanding each other?

A highly effective leader will put the team first, so that he/she can be influenced first by the team. When they can do this, it is much easier for the leader to influence their team. That is what highly effective leaders totally understand. You should work on yourself to do the same.

One time my line manager set up a meeting to understand how we were going to rectify the overspending on our project. Was his intention to really find out our ideas?

Was his intention to understand how we were? Was his intention to listen? No it was not. He told us what he wanted us to understand, and when we told him our thoughts, he didn’t listen. So therefore, he didn’t understand us.

He made assumptions of what was happening, and didn’t bother to really ask us, and dig deeper to find the answers together. He basically behaved how an insecure leader would behave, only thinking of himself.

If he was a secure, highly effective leader then he would put us first. He would try to understand everything about what was happening. He would then help us come to solutions to try to resolve the situation.

At the end of the meeting, he assumed that we all understood him, because he asked if anybody had any questions. Nobody answered. This was usually the case with him because we knew that if we asked a question, he wouldn’t be able to answer it anyway.

2. Do You REALLY Listen to your people?

If you are a leader and you don’t listen to your team, then eventually your team won’t say anything to you at all. That is exactly what happened in our meeting with our line manager. He didn’t listen, so the team didn’t answer his questions.

If our line manager tried his best to listen to understand what we had to say first, then there is no doubt that the team and I behave differently. We would have tried our best to answer his questions, and discuss our ideas so that he knew what to tell his boss.

Do you deliberately set up one to ones with each of your team members, so that you can listen to them and understand them? Does your boss do the same with you?

When I started my job as performance manager for Siemens in London, I only had a small team. But, I could tell that my predecessor did not listen to his team. He didn’t have any one to ones with them, or understand what they were thinking.

So I made it my business that the first thing I would do was set up one to ones with each team member. I didn’t want to just to get to know them. I wanted to understand how they were, and what they were thinking.

One team member did say to me “Tom, why are you having these chats with us, have we done something wrong already?” That almost knocked me off my chair. I said “you have done nothing wrong, I just want to get to know you.”

He said, “I’ve never had a one to one where I don’t get shouted at for doing something wrong.” That was very sad to hear. I assured him that I wasn’t there to shout or anything like that. I just wanted to listen to him and understand him.

But, this proved to me that the managers before me did not put their teams first. They put themselves first. They wanted the best out of the teams, not the best for them. All in all, they did not connect with their teams whatsoever.

3. How Do You Connect With Your People?

The way the engineering department was set up at Siemens was; performance team, production team, safety team, leadership team, and admin.

I was the performance manager, and when I first walked in, it definitely felt like it was us against the rest. If we were going to achieve better results than before, then we needed to join up and become one team.

So, when I did my morning performance briefs, I invited everyone from engineering, not just my team. It took a while for everyone to start coming, but in the end they did. The point of this was to advise the whole engineering team how our depot was performing.

It was also a chance for me to give credit to the teams for when a job was done well. But, most of all, it was a chance for the engineers to share their thoughts with me and the other leaders.  This was a great opportunity to actively listen to what the teams had to say, so we could understand.

I told the other leaders that we were not allowed to talk or interrupt the teams. Otherwise, we wouldn’t fully understand what they were saying. After a few weeks of doing this, we started to bond as a complete engineering team.

4. Strengthening Your Relationships

That is when the trust between all of us grew, and we began to build stronger relationships. All this happened because we as leaders joined together, the teams joined together, and we all listened to each other.

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Previously, before I joined the company, the only reason the leaders had a morning brief was to deliver bad news. Or, it was to highlight a mistake that was made by one of the team. It was never to provide positive information, praise, or to listen to what the team had to say. It was just to communicate, not to connect.

Throughout my time in a leadership position, I have found that it was very important to do morning briefings. I liked to do them so we can talk and have a positive start to the day. Other managers didn’t like to do it because they were lazy.

But, they would make excuses like; “that is a waste of my time,” or “I don’t have time” or “what benefit will that give me?” It was never about the team, it was always about them. That is a sign of an insecure leader who are only thinking of themselves.

In many organisations throughout the world, there are signs of insecure leaders and managers who don’t care for their people. You and I need to change that, and help others to change it too. You can make that difference. You NEED to make that difference.

How are you going to take action to make that difference?

What do you hear and what do you listen to when you are communicating or connecting? Can you hear what isn’t being talked about?

I welcome hearing how this post has influenced the way you think, the way you lead, or the results you have achieved because of what you’ve learned in it. Please feel free to share your thoughts with me by commenting below.

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All the best,

Tom (LeadGrowInfluence)

18 thoughts on “Do You REALLY Understand?

  1. Hi Tom, it’s always interesting to read your articles. As you may remember I had a small team years ago, and your information always lets me contemplate how I handled things. I didn’t do right all the time, as expected. We all make mistakes.
    I met one of my former staff years later and he remarked that I had been his best boss ever. Such a sweet thing to say. And it made me glad and proud.
    But I am quite sure if I would meet one of the others, she would definitely not call me her best boss ever. We ended in discussions that were going nowhere all too often.
    Win some, lose some, as they say. 🙂
    Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Hi Hannie,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m so pleased that this article resonated with you, and it’s great to hear that you always find my articles interesting.

      I really appreciate you sharing your experiences from when you led a small team, and it’s great to hear that one of your former team members thought you were the best boss ever. You must feel amazing about that compliment.

      We do all make mistakes as you say, I am guilty of plenty of mistakes. But, as long as we learn from those mistakes and can move forward then they will not be a disaster. If we don’t learn from the mistake and keep making it, then we will not move forward.

      Sometimes we win, sometimes we LEARN.

      All the best,

      Tom

  2. If you ask me, the most important aspect of building a strong and longlasting relationship with your team is to learn how to listen first. (before you even speak)

    A team member will become loyal is he feels like he’s being listened to. I use to hate it when my boss was rolling his eyes when I was speaking to him. It made me feel like I wasn’t respected enough and that is perhaps one of the main reasons why I left the firm…

    Thanks for the post Tom, you pointed out some good stuff and I really enjoyed reading it. Keep up the good work !

    1. Hi Gorjan,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m really happy that you found the article valuable.

      I couldn’t agree with you more, listening is what we must do more of as leaders. When our people feel heard and cared for, that will strengthen the relationship and build our trust with them.

      Keep returning, keep engaging and keep leading.

      All the best,

      Tom

  3. Hi Tom,

    In all my years in a leadership role (which is pretty much my entire working life thus far) this concept is probably the one that I have had to work hardest on.

    The issue for me, as I saw it, was twofold; firstly, and I believe I’ve mentioned this to you before, but I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, but people will typically know my emotions immediately by the expression on my face.

    This may be a good trait in life, but as a leader it’s a severe disadvantage.

    I’ve always wanted to be like those managers and leaders who constantly display a “poker face” and you have absolutely no idea what they’re thinking.

    Secondly, I like to think of myself as a problem solver in everyday life, but this will mean that I generally have preconceived ideas about how things should be done.

    Again, potentially an advantage in the “real world”, perhaps not so great in a management role, especially when you’re trying to build an honest and trustworthy relationship with your team.

    So, whenever I was in conversation with my team, whether individually or as a unit, I really had to try hard to avoid these “negative traits” and learn to listen, and as you say, really try and understand what was being said to me.

    I believe, just as with most things in life, I improved with practice.

    In fact, I would hold far more regular one-to-ones that were “officially” required, but more as a learning tool for myself.

    Funnily enough, the initial reaction I got to this was much the same as you – many of my team members associated a 1-2-1 as a negative thing, and it usually meant they were in trouble.

    A really enjoyable read as always Tom. I think I would’ve enjoyed working as part of your team (I’m not so sure you could say the same to me, LOL).

    Thanks
    Partha

    1. Hi Partha,

      Thank you so much for your very thorough and interesting comment. I’m really pleased that this article was valuable for you.

      I really appreciate you sharing your experiences as I believe readers of this article will be able to resonate with what you say and learn from you too. That is what is good about other people contributing to these articles in the comments, we can LEARN from you.

      I would have loved you to be part of my team, I think we would get along well.

      Keep returning, keep engaging and keep leading.

      All the best,

      Tom

  4. Great question to ask Do You REALLY Understand? We all communicate differently. If I’m uncertain when having a conversation, sometimes I will ask the person to repeat and make sure I understand completely. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Alyse,

      Thank you for your comment. It’s great that you found the article helpful.

      We do all communicate differently, but we all need to listen a lot more. Listen to understand, not listen to reply.

      Keep returning, keep engaging and keep leading.

      All the best,

      Tom

  5. Tom,

    Another great article. I know as a boss early on I didn’t always listen, but after working for others and learning how that felt, listening became one of the most important things I could do for my team. It would have been nice if your boss had remembered his own experience on the lower ladder rungs, it’s always a good reminder that others in that position have solid things to offer as well.

    I had one boss that did a fair job at pretending to listen, he had that Jay Leno tick where he kept saying thuings like “uh huh” and “yeah.” It felt great the first few times you dealt with him, but once you realized everything was passing through his empty skull, it killed every desire you had to work for the man.

    Thanks again for this,
    Sean

    1. Hi Sean,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m so pleased that you found this a great article and that it resonated with you.

      I appreciate you sharing your experiences with us as a boss. At first I wasn’t a good listener either. But, it’s good to learn from those mistakes we made earlier in our career and be able to move forward.

      Keep returning, keep engaging and keep leading.

      All the best,

      Tom

  6. Hey Tom,

    Listening to understand is so key. As you say, it can be quite challenging because often we are listening only so that we can give our response etc

    Listening to understand is also hard when we interrupt the other person. Too often many of us won;t even wait for the other person rto finish what they are saying before we butt in or finish theor sentence for them. We assume we know what they mean to say.

    And all of this just means we fail to truly connect with people around us which is why I like your advice to your fellow leaders not to talk when your teams were briefing in your performance meetings.

    Another important lesson for us to remember.

    Cheers
    Femi

    1. Hi Femi,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m so glad you found this article an important lesson.

      I couldn’t agree with you more that listening to understand is key. It is most important and you’re right it is difficult because our natural reaction is to reply. But taking that step back, putting more effort into listening and understanding is how we are going to build trust with people. When people feel heard, they feel amazing. If they don’t feel listened to then they feel awful. How would you rather your people to feel?

      Keep returning, keep engaging and keep leading.

      All the best,

      Tom

  7. Hi Tom,

    Reading your articles is always a point of self-reflection. As someone who is a co-owner of a humble agency, I do find that I’m still learning a new side of me when I’m managing different people or clients.

    This, to listen with intent, is especially important for not only leaders but everyone working in the team.

    Wonderful sharing once more, Tom.

    Cheers,
    SAM

    1. Hi Sam,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m really pleased you found so much value and self-reflection from this article. Really means a lot to me.

      I couldn’t agree with you more, listening with intent is so important for everybody not only leaders. We all need to be leaders no matter what position we have in a team or in life.

      Keep returning, keep engaging and keep leading.

      All the best,

      Tom

  8. Hi Tom, this is another powerful post from you, thank you. Just the first few early paragraphs hooked me in. Listening to understand is a skill I have personally developed because I have experienced the opposite from various managers – I believe it is an important skill for relationships inside and outside the work place. Also, particularly where you talk about listening to your team, gaining their trust and letting them know you have their back. Sadly I have never had that kind of manager. As you mentioned also, I have worked with so many bosses who have put themselves first. They made sure that the team understood them before or if they ever understood us. Most times they were not interested in understanding us – it was their way or the highway. I shocks me because I am basically ’empathetic’ by nature!! As a result I find I make it my duty to listen to my collegues to understand how I can create an effective team. Reading your post however has me thinking I should not let past experience of being managed by insecure managers be my guide, but apply this listening and building trust approach and take it from there. Thank you for such insight as always.

    1. Hi Ola,

      Thank you for your very detailed comment. It’s great that you found this article powerful, means so much to me.

      I’m so pleased that you have developed the skill of listening to understand. It really is such an important skill as you have said in all relationships, especially if we want to keep strengthening those relationships and building trust. Stay empathetic and don’t let any of your managers or previous managers influence you in a negative way. You are strong and you can be the leader you wish you had, you can lead your people in the best way you can and help them to become their best.

      Keep returning, keep engaging and keep leading.

      All the best,

      Tom

  9. You make very important points in this article to help leaders become highly effective. Listening, to really hear what people are saying is essential. A leader who is not a good listener does not build trust. And, if the people don’t trust their leader, there is no way for him/her to be effective at all.

    “Do you REALLY listen…” is a great question for us, as leaders to continually challenge ourselves with.

    Then, knowing how to connect and build relationships will really help to improve the effectiveness of the leader. Without those, the leader is probably an INeffective leader.

    John Maxwell says, “A Leader with no one following is just someone going for a walk.”

    Your final question, “Can you hear what isn’t being talked about?”, is also a great question for us as leaders to challenge ourselves with. I agree with your premise. These are definitely aspects of becoming a highly effective leader.

    1. Hi Glenn,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m so pleased that you found the article valuable.

      I completely agree that the question of “Do you REALLY listen?” is very powerful for leaders to ask themselves. I like to follow John Maxwell and you have quoted one of his most powerful statements. The only way we can attract followers is by listening to them to understand, not to respond.

      Keep returning, keep engaging and keep leading.

      All the best,

      Tom

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