21 Nov 2011 10:12 AM | Kathleen Loehr

Thanksgiving is upon us, providing a pause to reflect, be grateful and connect with those we care about. Last week I challenged you to notice your own automatic responses when stressed at work. The holidays can add additional stress: travel, rushing, more To Do’s appearing as we ponder gifts and family expectations on top of year-end work challenges. As leaders, we can use this holiday week for additional self-awareness. How well do we connect deeply with and listen to others and ourselves?

Being a committed listener is a powerful leadership move. A committed listener is one who is fully present, focused on what is occurring in the conversation immediately in front of him/her. In that moment s/he is attending to what is being said, what is underneath that is not being said, and what the potential choices are resulting from the conversation. When I’m listened to like that, I feel valued and heard, and I’m more likely to stay in collaboration with the listener. When I listen in this way as a leader, I feel connected and expanded. I’ve learned that I actually expand my reach and impact when I center and provide this level of listening to my internal and external partners.

It wasn’t always this way for me. I grew up in a big family. I’m one of eight siblings. A gathering in our family is never small. We are 35 strong when the immediate family is gathered for weddings or graduations, and small gatherings with only two siblings and their families add up to at least nine! I learned early on to NOT listen to just one person at a time. It wasn’t easy with that many people, noise and level of activity. Since we know that we are what we practice, I was unconsciously practicing many times a day the ability to carry on more than one conversation at a time, while guarding my turf (be it my bedroom, dinner plate or toys), and thinking about my family and school chores. I learned to multi-task in my listening at a young age!

That was the listening style I brought to my early leadership. My style worked for the many disasters we responded to at the American Red Cross when we sorting through multiple issues to make decisions quickly almost every 30-60 minutes. It did NOT serve me in building strong relationships with my team and donors. They could tell that I wasn’t fully present, that something else held my attention in addition to what they were saying. I talked fast, often interrupting as though I knew what they were going to say, and I’d move to solutions before they felt really heard.

My leadership journey included changing my listening presence with others. However, as I said last week, the step before change is self-awareness. What exactly are our automatic responses under stress? What have we practiced unconsciously throughout our lives until now, and does it still serve us?

Being with our families and loved ones during the busy holidays can reveal clearly our deep automatic tendencies when listening. Here is my challenge to further deepen your self-awareness under stress. Pay attention to HOW you listen when you are with family and friends this week. Where is your presence? Are you centered, leaning forward or pulling away? Are you half listening and also aware of what is happening in the kitchen or on TV? Do you fully sense the person in front of you and what they care about? Could you repeat what they said and their concerns after the conversation is over? Take mental notes and later write down what was revealed. Share with others on our blog–I’m sure you are not alone in how you listen under stress!

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