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The Listening Leadership Talk

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.” - Martin Luther King

For more than 20 years, I have taught the Leadership Talk to thousands of people worldwide. And maybe the most important thing I have taught is not about talking -- at least the leader's talking.

I have been taught that there is a hierarchy of verbal persuasion. The lowest levels, the least effective, are speeches and presentations. The highest levels, the most effective, are Leadership Talks.

I have taught that speeches/presentations communicate information; Leadership Talks, on the other hand, have leaders set up deep, human, emotional connections with audiences -- indispensable in achieving impressive results.

Of course, the Leadership Talk is about talking. But often, there is a more effective dynamic to employ listening. Not passive listening -- but listening for one purpose, so the other person gives you your Leadership Talk.

After all, it is not what you say that is important in a Leadership Talk but what your audience does after you have had your say.

And if they do the best thing not after you speak but after you listen, you have given one of the most effective Leadership Talks of all -- a Listening Leadership Talk.

The Listening Leadership Talk focuses on what other people are invariably interested in, themselves. But here is the key: they are simply talking is useless to your LeadershipLeadership. It is only valid when their talk is the talk you need for them to give.

Moving people from talking their talk to talking your talk -- and ultimately walking your walk --is the art of the Listening Leadership Talk.

Here are a few tips to make it happen.

1. Use question marks. 

Your asking questions encourages people to reflect upon and discuss your challenge. After all, we cannot motivate anyone to do anything. They must motivate themselves. And they best encourage themselves when they reflect on their character and their situation and are also allowed to talk about their reflections.

You may not like what they say, but their answer is often better in advancing their motivation and your results than your full-stop sentence.

Furthermore, their answer may prompt them to think they have produced a clever idea. People tend to be less enamored of your thoughts than their own.

A Listening Leadership Talk can thrive. However, be aware of the difference between asking a question of somebody and questioning them. When asking a question, you communicate that you are interested in the answer the person wants; when questioning, you speak that you are interested in the answer you want. And if the people you are interacting with think you are there not for them but yourself, you damage the environment.

2. Create a critical convergence. 

This will help you avoid the "herding cats" syndrome. Once you get people talking, they may be in a state of disorder, discussing everything but what you want to discuss.

Keep things on track by setting up a critical convergence, joining your enthusiasms and theirs, so they are as enthusiastic as you about meeting the challenges you face. Do that by understanding their needs as problems and looking to have them voice solutions to those problems, solutions that advance your leadership concerns.

For instance, in a police academy classroom, the instructor passed a note to one of the recruits. It read, "CLEAR THIS CLASSROOM OUT NOW!" The recruit started shouting, "Everybody out of the room!" People looked confused—a few left. The rest stayed. The instructor gave the note to another recruit, who pleaded, "Please, everybody out." Still, people remained there. Then the instructor offered a message to a third recruit, who developed a Listening Leadership talk by creating a critical convergence. He asked, "What time is it?" Quarter to twelve," someone answered. In silence, the recruit with the note shrugged and let the idea appear. "Lunch break!" the recruits called in unison and quickly cleared the room.

Creating a critical convergence sets up an environment in which Listening Leadership flourishes.

3. Develop a Leadership Contract. 

This may be written -- from a few ideas scribbled on a scrap of paper to a more formal typed version calling for your signatures --, or the Contract may be an oral agreement, sealed with a handshake. It is not a legal instrument -- nor should it embody legalese. It is just spelling out the leadership actions you agree must be taken to achieve your goal.

Here is the key: The best way to get that agreement is first to have them talk about their proposed actions. Make sure they describe specific physical activities. And not just any actions but leadership actions. Discourage them from talking about how they will be doing tasks. Instead, please encourage them to talk about how they will take LeadershipLeadership off those tasks. (There is a significant difference in results generated between doing and leading.) Then ask how they need to be supported in those actions. Finally, ask them how those actions should be checked and evaluated. To get answers to these questions, you will be putting together a Leadership Contract by giving a Listening Leadership Talk.

The Leadership Talk is the most excellent leadership tool. But the agency has its gradations of effectiveness. Often your talking is not as effective as your audience's talking. When your Leadership Talk comes out of their mouths, not your mouth, you may raise your leadership effectiveness to much higher levels.


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