In popular culture, great leaders are often portrayed as lone geniuses. However, I believe leadership is a team effort. As the saying goes, “a leader without followers is just taking a walk”. I believe that great leaders are also great listeners, enabling them to lead their organizations to greatness.
In my MBA, I had an amazing opportunity to develop my listening skills. Together with 13 of my fellow MBAs, I had the chance to be part of the Peer Support programme, a student-led support group for students. Fast-paced environments such as a top university can be stressful and overwhelming. Organizations hosting such environments have a responsibility, as well as an inherent self-interest, to make them safe and supportive. The fact that Oxford University has recognized this 25 years ago in founding Peer Support speaks to the quality of this institution. It is part of why I love being here so much.
Preparation for Peer Support involved 30 hours of training in listening and communicating effectively. Throughout the year, many of our peers have gotten in touch to discuss issues they were facing throughout this challenging year. Through Peer Support, we were able to offer to our peers a safe space to talk about their issues, contributing positively to the community at Oxford Saïd.
Below are some of the key lessons this year with Peer Support has taught me.
Be present. Our minds wander quickly, particularly when we’re busy. However, distracted minds make for poor conversations. When talking to someone, be fully present. If distracting thoughts enter your mind, acknowledge them, but gently push them aside. That way, you can focus on the conversation at hand.
Don’t give advice. This might seem counter-intuitive. When someone tells us about their problems, it’s tempting to tell them what to do. However, this cuts their own reflection short. Moreover, often we might not have the necessary expertise and familiarity with the issue to give meaningful and considerate advice. And so, giving advice is often unhelpful, and might even be harmful.
Summarize. During the conversation, summarize in your own words what you understood so far. Hearing the issue in someone else’s words can be helpful in gaining better understanding of the issue.
Give space to explore. Ask open questions to encourage your conversation partner to reflect and explore in more depth what they want to talk about. Open questions can be an effective way to guide a conversation, while giving your conversation partner space to think. Use questions such as “what” and “how”. Avoid using “why” questions, as they often imply a judgment.
Be assertive. While not a listening skill, it’s important to be able to disagree with someone without damaging the relationship. The key here is to express your feelings objectively, without shaming the other person. Start by saying how you feel. Then, describe what you disagree with. If it’s something the other person did, describe the action and not their motive. Finally, clearly say what you would like the other person to change.
By being a better listener, we can help others to think independently, gain perspective of their issues, and eventually come up with better solutions themselves. In doing so, we can empower them to contribute to their full potential, making our organizations more supportive, resilient, and successful.
In my view, this is what great leadership is about.
Do you want to know more about Oxford University Peer Support? Check out their website.
For more information about becoming a better leader by being a better listener, check out this great article on Forbes by Mike Myatt.
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