Are you (REALLY) listening to me?

The other day I was reflecting and I think I became a better leader after becoming the head of family and father. There might obviously be many influencing factors like maturity, additional responsibility, and lifetime plans but, deliberating about key aspects, I realised that it has a lot to do with my ability to empathize and listen to them –  something I have developed.

Last summer I decided to do some activity with my younger son (Murilo) – who was 10year-old at that time. The plan I envisioned had twofold objectives. I wanted to do some sport and longed to spend valuable time with him, who is growing very fast. The agreed activity was running and I named us the “Silva-runners” to make fun of it.

Before moving into execution, I assessed what could be the possible risks for the plan not to work and the only thing that came to my mind was that that, maybe, Murilo wouldn’t be able to keep the pace – his short legs, not so much energy and asking to stop all the time and even before I had warmed up. Long story short, I was wrong and underestimated him big time! He actually had a lot of energy – more than I did actually.

The plan indeed had flaws that I didn’t have conceived at the beginning but didn’t have anything to do with Murilo but me. The realisation was both rewarding and fulfilling and taught me important lessons which I set as life principles and apply in the business / my leadership.

The first day came the “Silva-Runners” finally got into action but it was not as smooth as planned. On the very first 100 meters after start running Murilo said “Dad, can I ask you a question?” and I said, “of course you can!” – in the end, one of the objectives of the activity was for us to spend valuable time together and allowing him to speak I was achieving that – in my mind. So, he asked that question and a dozen more in a very short span of time or precisely less than an hour.  Too much for me.

When we came back home that day after one hour out and my wife, Priscila, very interested on the outcome of our first activity asked, “How was that”. And I said “Murilo asked millions of questions. A lot of talks but not so much workout. She said, “ow, that is great, isn’t it?”

For our next activity, I planned something different. That day I came home with two headsets and pair of watches – those which measure heartbeat and calculates burned calories. The idea here was to motivate us to continue with our activity having fancy watches but also, with the headsets and on the apex of my selfishness – I accept, with the attempt to do some running! Running and listening to music is common but in our plan, this was killing our talk moment – something that for him was the “valuable time”.

Luckily and for my own benefit, the plan with headsets didn’t prevent the questions to come and I kudos to Murilo’s resilience. After that, I realised that we obviously had different goals for the time spent together where for me it was 80% exercise and 20% talk and for Murilo it was clearly the other way around. Time to adapt the plan!

Instead of jogging, we started mostly trotting along with small sprints allowing us to converse. Problem solved! We found a compromise or middle way between our main objectives for the time we were spending together.

And that was so the days to follow. Both of us were happy, we were exercising and “communicating” a lot. Until this happened!

I remember that he asked me something and then continued elaborating for around 10 / 20 minutes or some “miles” (as runners may calculate itJ) and I was entertaining with “hum… Yes… Sure… I see…” and so one so forth. Then he stopped and asked

“Dad, are you listening to me?”

And I said, “of course!”

To my surprise, he probed “What did I tell you then?

In that moment, that very moment I stopped and thought “what am I doing”. Then looked at him and said. “Son, I am sorry, I am really sorry but my mind was somewhere else and I was not listening to you. It is not that what you are saying is not important or I don’t care, it is just because I had my mind busy with something”. He understood and then I said “let’s start it over. Tell me and I promise I will listen to you!”

Since then, that is what I force myself to do. When we speak, I stop and really listen to him. This experience taught me important lessons and following are the 10 key opportunities I have identified:

  • It is a two ways road: Communication only happens when we listen, understand and respond in kind.
  • It was not about me: My son was eager to share his knowledge and tell me the great things he was doing. And not listening actively I was missing a gold opportunity. Imagine if he decides not to tell me anything because I wasn’t listening to him anyway?
  • Listening triggers questions: The opportunity to learn something that I don’t know increases my interest and questions arise naturally. Then the magic happens and we exchange information, learn something from each other. He wanted to speak but was also very eager to listen to my point of view and learn from that. (win-win)
  • Be present: I was there physically but my mind wasn’t. Learn to be present (body and mind) and avoid external & internal distractions. Being genuinely interested! If not a good moment to listen to him, we defer the activity.
  • Listening boots learning opportunities: Kids today are much more advanced than we were at that age – especially on technology. He does a lot of research and has millions of things that I don’t know.
  • Making it safe: He trusts me wholeheartedly and when it comes to different views or understandings, we speak freely and sometimes explore alternatives/views together gently challenging each other in a constructive and respectful way.
  • Being humble and not being judgemental: Because I love him and respect him, I learned the power of genuinely listen without judgement. The last I want is that he feels intimidated or discourage to express his views, thoughts, stories and ideas.

Building confidence: We can talk about anything and everything. And that is how it should be.

  • Non-verbal cues: It was not specific to this experience but something I improved looking at my son was how to ‘capture’ non-spoken communication. When he has something inside and burning – he communicates with his facial expressions and gestures. (Trevor will talk more about non-verbal communication in his next post).
  • My heritage: As a final point and possibly more importantly, I expect him to listen to me too. If I don’t demonstrate what listening is about, how can he learn and practice that effectively? It is what people call ‘walk-the-talk’ and ‘leading-by-example’.

Summarizing, communication only happens when there is an exchange. One speaks, the other listens and responds. Otherwise, it is a lecture or a monologue. In leadership /coaching, practicing different levels of listening, including the uncanny ability to listen to what is not said, increase opportunities and effectiveness. No one can get wiser or smarter talking but listening and reflecting. I humbly admit that I personally don’t master it in every single interaction I have. It is a long journey which requires a lot of practice and mindfulness! But I am wholeheartedly committed to do whatever it takes as I know, being the above a lived experience, it is worthwhile and fulfilling.

If you desire to improve your listening skills, you can refer to one of Trevor’s material available in the toolkit area “levels of listening” or one of the following links