As the digital age continues its relentless march forward, learning how to listen to others is the key to self-awareness and becoming a better leader, says Nick Marson
This article was first published in the February/March 2019 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
As ACCA has been highlighting, in the future accountants will need highly developed interpersonal skills – or emotional intelligence – if they are to demonstrate the edge they retain over the robots.
The challenge for leaders in a digital age is to develop an understanding of their own and their team’s potential. To meet this need, the time has come for the silent leader. As Haemin Sunim, a writer in the Zen Buddhism tradition, puts it, ‘Knowledge wants to talk, and wisdom wants to listen.’
The concept of the silent leader is a paradox. How can you lead without talking? But the silent leader demonstrates an economy in talking that engages followers and creates a space for creativity. Yes, listening is scary. To listen you need to be silent, and it is easier to fill the space than to hold the space. Talking means being in control; listening is being out of control. Talking is being the master; listening is being the servant. It feels safer to talk than to listen, so this will take practice.
The skill of the silent leader is to create and hold spaces so that people can think about their thinking. Giving others a chance to think tells them that they, and their thoughts, matter. This engagement increases the quality of thinking that results in more innovation and better execution.
Think, imagine, dream
Silence forces us to think, imagine and dream. In your busy life, silence is a vital resource, like pure water: refreshing and invigorating. It calms your body, turns the volume up on your inner thoughts and retunes you to your outer world. Your brain is chattering away to itself in the quiet. It works in silent spaces to organise information into neurons that generate thoughts and actions. The surface of the sea may look calm, but it is never truly still.
Your brain uses a quiet default mode situated in the prefrontal cortex to allow you to reflect. In your reflective silences your brain is busy integrating external and internal data, constantly making meaning from your experiences, fitting you into your turning world. Finding quiet places in your busy life allows you to reflect deeply – in effect, to talk to yourself, to get to know yourself better. Self-awareness is the path to becoming a better leader.
Then there is the need to be quiet while you listen. It’s fascinating that the Chinese picture for listening contains the symbols for eyes, ear and heart. Your silences in your coaching conversations will show that you really are listening and that you care – your silence can build trust. You lead at the speed of trust and one conversation at a time.
‘Between stimulus and response there is a space,’ said the Austrian neurologist and psychologist Viktor Frankl. ‘In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’
Our ability to listen can be impaired by distractions and a hectic daily life, which means that sometimes we don’t have time to care. The greeting in some parts of Africa is ‘I see you’, to which the reply is ‘I am here’. It seems the very act of seeing someone and being present with them brings them into existence. People need to feel witnessed, to feel heard and understood.
Lead by coaching
Conversations define our lives. Coaching conversations are a reciprocal exchange of thoughts and ideas. The silences in coaching conversations create the space for insights to emerge that energise action. Organisations benefit from developing a ‘leading-by-coaching’ culture to unlock the creative minds of their people.
Your conscious mind
The miracle of your conscious mind allows you to think, reflect and self-evaluate. Reflecting deeply can help you solve problems by allowing new ideas to surface and posing different questions. As we journey through life, we should keep a tight grip on our capacity for stillness. The usefulness of a cup comes from the space that it holds; out of our stillness grows our conscious awakening and power as a silent leader.
Becoming a listener
The challenge for leaders is to be better listeners. Practising listening requires self-mastery and discipline but will give meaning and purpose to your work. Silence gives you and your business a competitive advantage. It may not be tangible, but it has a powerful presence and a distinctive quality.
Nick Marson is a leadership coach and author of Leading by coaching: How to deliver impactful change one conversation at a time.
"The skill of the silent leader is to create and hold spaces so that people can think about their thinking"