GUEST AUTHOR BLOG by Bernard T. Ferrari author of "Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All."
Most of us see Washington as a cacophonous free-for-all that only gets louder and more chaotic during the quadrennial election season.
Politicians charged with addressing today’s extremely complex issues appear to do nothing but stand tall on their hind legs and howl at the moon. Just view the House’s debt ceiling debate or the Administration recently getting cross wise with the Catholic Church and you can understand why the American public feels frustrated and embarrassed and wonders what has come over their elected brood.
My diagnosis is simple: these ladies and gentlemen are so busy pontificating that they have forgotten how to listen. My business experience has taught me that finely honed listening skills undergird good judgment and decision-making. Listening separates the good leaders from the poor ones, those that can solve hard problems from those who can’t. Successful business managers listen to everyone – customers, suppliers, employees, and competitors. Their good listening is often the difference between profit and loss, success and failure, a long career and a short one.
The same holds true for politicians. They must learn to listen, in a focused and pro-active way, to constituents, experts, sometimes even to lobbyists, and most importantly, to each other. If they are to be the problem solvers we need, then they must learn to listen better.
Let me suggest three simple steps that politicians can take to begin a journey toward better listening.
Show respect: I bet you have met some good listeners. The first thing you notice is that they are intently interested in what is on your mind. They pay attention, do not get distracted. They ask questions that probe more deeply into what you have to say. They test ideas with you, but avoid preaching to or bullying you. Listening, for these people, means a sincere and concerted effort to understand what you think and feel. Showing respect makes a leader likeable, attractive and trustworthy. What politician could say no to that profile?
Keep Quiet: It’s just about impossible to listen when you are talking all the time. I’m sure you’ve heard of the 80/20 rule. In this context, it reminds me that if I can just shut up for 80 percent of a conversation, I just might discover something that better informs my decision-making. It isn’t easy for business managers to do keep quiet; I can hardly imagine how difficult it is for politicians who appear never to take a breath. When they finally stop talking, it’s usually only to reload, rather than to reflect. Rarely is it to listen.
Question assumptions: Good listeners try to set aside their biases, beliefs and assumptions when engaging others. They don’t make stealth speeches disguised as questions or answers. They don't frame conversations or statements with clever preambles that back the other person into a corner. They don’t spout out glib, easy answers before hearing all the relevant facts and opinions. Rather, they forage for any information or ideas that might give them a new slant on a problem. They keep an open mind. Unfortunately, our politicians seem increasingly handcuffed by rigid ideologies, which I see as the most extreme and pernicious kind of assumptions. It is difficult to win in the game of making good judgments when you won’t hear new facts or different ideas that call into question your most unshakable beliefs.
Can politicians improve their listening skills? I know they can. I have witnessed men and women in all types of work learn to be better listeners and so become better leaders. Is it too much that our politicians follow the same path? So let us take up a new chant at political rallies: Listen! Listen! Listen!
Bernard Ferrari is Chairman of Ferrari Consultancy, a retired Director of McKinsey and Co. and author of “Power Listening” (Putnam/Portfolio, release March 1, 2012)