I was at a neighborhood picnic where annually people in the area gather for food, fun and games. A group of four or five neighbors was standing behind my lawn chair enabling me to eavesdrop whether I wanted to or not. What I noticed was they were all reporting to each other. No one was involved in a real dialogue.
One person would tell a short story while all remained quiet. Then, another person would tell his or her short story. There was no commenting on each other’s stories or building on someone else’s point. Bottom line, it was chatter without curiosity. The next week, I was sitting in on a leader meeting and heard the same group monologues–lots of words but no connections. It made me wonder if we are witnessing the demise of old-fashioned curiosity.
Seek First to Understand…
Stephen Covey drew from classic books on human relationships to phrase his success habit—”Seek first to understand; then to be understood.” But, there is more to Covey’s habit than simply deferring to another person to “go first.” The concept is about the pursuit of insight and the demonstration of compassion. The goal of curiosity is to care deeply enough to discover meaning not found merely in the words used.
It is a bit like praising my cat. The cat listens for my tone to discern meaning and intent, not the association of words with her history. I could tell her: “You are the ugliest, most disgusting animal on the planet.” If conveyed with warm tones, she gets an entirely different understanding than she would if she spoke English instead of kitty. Great leaders are effective understanding-seekers, not just good talkers.
Start with Raffle Listening
You’re at a charity raffle where the winning ticket-holder will take home a new vehicle. As the master of ceremonies is about to call out the winning number—hopefully yours—a chatty friend walks up to start a conversation. What do you do? Of course, at that moment you remain focused on the MC not distracted by your talkative friend. Leader curiosity starts with undivided focus.
I worked years ago with Ritz-Carlton Hotels founder, Horst Schulze. When in his office, you were the MC with his winning number. Only his assistant could break his absorption in you to let him know his desk phone was ringing. I felt like I was the most important person in his world at that moment. He was not just listening; he was seeking to connect. His curiosity left me feeling valued.
Listen Without an Agenda
When my son was a teenager, we had our share of father-son conversations sometimes triggered by misunderstandings or different views. In one such conversation (a.k.a., confrontation), my son boldly said, “Why don’t you quit being a daddy for a minute and just listen to me.” I realized what he meant. I was not listening to learn his point of view, I was listening to correct, teach, discipline or find a new way to convey that two-letter word most parents of teenagers employ a lot.
Steer Clear of Judgmental Questions
A sentence that begins with the word “why” and ends in a question mark is usually perceived as indicting. It is not the word, it the word and the punctuation. Body language can, of course, play a role in how such questions are perceived. But even with perfect body language, our antennae go up as soon as we hear a “why” question. Find ways to soften interrogatory questions. “What were your reasons for doing that?” can sound very different from “Why did you do that?” Judgment can turn an open atmosphere into one of guarded behavior.
Listen with Your Whole Body
We are all skilled multi-taskers. How many times have you been busy, someone has tried to speak with you, and you have said, “Go ahead, I’m listening.” And, you no doubt were. But the second goal of leader curiosity is to convey compassion. Diverting some of your energy to another task fails the “I care” test. My wife sometimes chides me with, “You aren’t listening to me.” I defensively respond, “Yes, I am. Ask me a question and I will prove it to you.” However, proof of listening is not the objective. If she does not feel heard and valued, my ears may have succeeded, but our connection did not.
Leaders today are expected to be culture-builders not just mission-achievers. Examine the recent spotlights on the cultures of Uber, Facebook, NFL and United Airlines. A culture is built with valued connections and the quest for mutual understandings. It is nurtured by leaders who are curious. “The best in business,” wrote author Robin Sharma, “have boundless curiosity and open minds.”
Have you read?
3 Common Mistakes That CEOs Make And How To Overcome Them.
Three Reasons CEOs Don’t Become Thought Leaders.
Maintaining Brand Identity in Omnichannel Strategy.
Leading Through the Lens of Innovation: 5 Traits Everyone Should Master.