Listening Is A Leadership Skill

by | Jul 27, 2023 | Podcasts

SWGR Allison O'Brien | Listening Intelligence

 

Listening is a leadership skill, not a soft skill. In this episode, Allison O’Brien, a Facilitator and Master Trainer with ECHO Listening Intelligence, debunks the myths around listening. She also identifies four quadrants of The ECHO Listening Profile and its misconceptions. She explains the value of developing listening intelligence and becoming aware of our habitual filters to create a beneficial outcome for everyone. Are you a connective, reflective, analytical, or conceptual listener? Tune in now to better understand what type of listener you are and develop listening intelligence with Allison O’Brien.

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Listening Is A Leadership Skill

It’s A Crucial Leadership Skill

This is the show where we talk about communication, leadership, various different communication styles, and presentation skills. Before I get into our very interesting guest, I’d like to offer you an opportunity to see where your presentation skills are strong by checking out our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see where your skills are strong and where perhaps a bit of support could help you get the results you need and the recognition that you deserve.

My guest is a friend of mine, Allison O’Brien, who when I met her, I knew immediately I needed to get her on the show because I talk a lot about how you present yourself. She talks about listening and why it’s so important to listen. She works with ECHO Listening, and that’s a way to recognize the way you listen and the way others listen so that you can improve your communication.

The official bio is that, Allison O’Brien is a Facilitator and Master Trainer with ECHO Listening Intelligence. She’s based in Boulder, Colorado. Since 2014, she has been helping to build a worldwide network of listening experts. She certifies practitioners to deliver the ECHO Listening Profile in 10 countries and across 4 continents.

With a broad scope of work, executive leadership coaching, leadership training for new, emerging, and mid-level managers, workplace conflict resolution, and corporate communication training focused on listening, Allison O’Brien uses two assessment tools, the ECHO Listening Profile and the Conflict Dynamics Profile. Both instruments provide the crucial insights needed for shifting the way people communicate so that you can change the world one conversation at a time. It’s the way people receive information, share information, and manage their emotions in challenging situations.

Allison says, “My genuine interest in people and what makes us tick has paved the way for a career helping individuals and companies transform the way they do business through the standpoint of culture, communication, and most importantly, listening. For decades, I’ve been intrigued by human interaction, and the question of, ‘What is its connection, and how or why do we withdraw and disengage from each other?’”

As Allison got deeper into my career and had many more interactions in business settings, the follow-up question became, “How does the way we communicate, impact how we work with others, how we lead, how we make difficult decisions collaboratively, and also, how we show up for the people that we love?” In asking these questions, Allison became very curious and it became very clear that her life’s purpose is to change the way people live, love, and do business for the better. She said, “I believe it’s rare to work every day in a job that aligns 100% with one’s core values, passion, and purpose. I’m incredibly fortunate and profoundly grateful to be able to say without hesitation, this is true for me.” We had a great conversation. I know you’ll enjoy it. Onto the interview with Allison O’Brien.

Allison O’Brien, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much, Elizabeth. I’m excited to chat with you.

We’ve known each other for not all that long, but it was one of those instant, “We need to do some stuff together.” I spent a lot of time talking about how you talk and you talk about how you listen, which is always good for me. It’s a good lesson for me to learn to listen better. Before I get into the professional work you do, let me ask. Who would be your dream interview? If you were to interview someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be, what would you ask them, and who should be listening?

I know I should probably say someone famous and someone who’s made a huge impact on the world that everyone knows, but that’s not my answer. My dream interview would be Irene Seller, who is my maternal grandmother. My mother’s mother, who my daughter’s middle named after. She was this vibrant woman who had this poise and was very quiet until she wasn’t. She was the life of the party without being the loudest voice in the room, but she was the one that everyone wanted there.

The reason that I say her is that I regret that when she passed away, I was in my early twenties, still a little bit in that self-absorbed mode and that youthful mindset where you believe you have all the time in the world. I didn’t understand at the time the depth of her experience and what I wanted to know about it. I didn’t understand that until I got a little bit older what it meant in terms of familial history, understanding her at a deeper level.

She and my grandfather fled the Nazis in Austria in November of 1939. There’s so much to unpack just in that alone. They spent several months in Panama waiting to get into this country, arrived, not knowing she was pregnant, and had a baby on Ellis Island two days after arriving. My grandfather was not with her at the time. In fact, he wasn’t even able to get here for another five months. He didn’t know that he had a daughter. When you think about that, how does a woman who doesn’t speak the language find her way from New York to Boston where she has a sister with an infant in tow? That’s the gist of it. I would love to hear more about how you survived that, losing everything, starting over, and making your way.

You could probably talk to a recent immigrant and hear the same story, somebody who walked from Guatemala to the US or something like that. I understand about having been too self-absorbed in your twenties, which you’re supposed to be. That’s age-appropriate. I was 24 when my grandmother died. I wish I could go back and ask her the questions I understand as an adult. I was 24. I was full of my exciting new life out of college. I love that. That’s wonderful. You talked a lot about listening. This is considered a “soft skill,” but it’s something important. I’m curious if you learned any of that from your grandmother.

I’ve never been asked a question anything like that, Elizabeth, and it’s great. Did I learn any of that through my grandmother? I don’t know that I could say yes to that. When I think back on observing my grandmother in conversation, she was muted. Not submissive, that’s not what I mean, but she took everything in, and then when she responded, it was either something funny, a one-liner, or something very appropriate to the question that was posed. She was not a rambler by any means. She commanded people’s attention because when she spoke, it was very deliberate. It was a chosen moment for her. It wasn’t impulsive. There was nothing impulsive about that woman.

She gained respect and admiration from people, and they paid attention. Now that you’ve asked me that question, and now that I’m thinking about it, it makes perfect sense when you think about what people pay attention to in a speaker. It is when it’s concise, when it’s to the point, when it’s engaging, and when it’s appropriately delivered.

I think she listened, thought about what she was going to say, and said it to the point as opposed to doing lots and lots of words and rambling. That certainly is a lesson any speaker could learn.

It’s so interesting. She didn’t seek attention, but she gained a lot of attention with people’s intent to pay attention to her.

That’s a lesson we could all learn. Why did you get into listening as a central focus for what you do? Why does it matter?

I’ll go back to what you mentioned about listening being a soft skill, or in my opinion, listening not being a soft skill. We hear this over and over again there’s training for soft skills. Communication and listening generally fit into that. I disagree. I see listening as a hard power skill, meaning it’s a driver of business profit. It is a driver of positive work outcomes, but there are a lot of myths around it, myths that either people are a good listener or a bad listener, or someone is listening or they’re not listening. These myths determine this pre-conception around listening being something fluffy and that takes the backseat to technical training, sales training, or other kinds of technical development inside of an organization.

I say it’s a hard skill that drives profit because miscommunication and misunderstanding in the workplace cause so much rework, loss of profit, and turnover. We have so many metrics that we can attribute to the cost of poor listening for an organization. There’s one figure that is attributed to Fortune 500 companies. The annual losses are $32 billion for poor listening and poor communication. That’s astounding. Not all of us are in Fortune 500 companies, so that same metric when you’re looking at a company of 1,000 employees is $62 million a year.

I work with people who don’t feel heard. If you could train everybody around you to be heard and to listen so those who don’t feel heard don’t just quit and go somewhere else. Also, and I know this from painful personal experience, many of us feel that we aren’t heard, but we aren’t listening either.

I wanted to address that a little bit, this piece of science around why it is that we don’t feel heard and why it is that people feel that we’re not speaking into something that they’re interested in listening to or for or engaging us. So often, we put the onus on someone else to engage us, and it’s on us that we have to take personal responsibility for engaging in what is being said or spoken.

SWGR Allison O'Brien | Listening Intelligence

Listening Intelligence: Often, we put the onus on someone else to engage us when it’s on us that we have to take personal responsibility for engaging in what is being said or spoken.

 

Science shows us that listening is a brain-based activity and that we, over time, develop habitual behaviors or preferences in what we listen to and for, what’s easiest for us to pay attention to, what’s most engaging to us, and what we might unintentionally filter out. We develop over time these habitual preferences. Once we become aware of them, we can start to shift in conversation depending on who we’re in conversation with, the context, and the intended outcome, and have more valuable conversations. Back to this idea of myth, we often think that either people aren’t paying attention or we’re not being heard when people are listening to something or listening for something that we are not speaking about or in a way that’s easy for them.

At this point, I should ask you to explain what the ECHO Listening System is. What does ECHO stand for?

ECHO is an acronym for Effective Communication for Healthy Organizations. That’s what we’re out to achieve. It is to get people to develop what we call this skill of listening intelligence. Listening intelligence is an agility in our listening that we can develop over time once we become aware of our habitual filters. We then can apply a shift or a change in the moment, depending on the context, the people involved, and the intended outcome. We can apply our listening intelligence to have the most beneficial outcome for everyone involved.

Here’s an example. Have you ever been in a meeting or you talk to your clients who are in meetings where they leave the meeting feeling like everyone’s aligned and on the same page and, based on miscommunications, work outcomes weren’t meeting performance standards, etc.? It becomes very clear that people weren’t actually on the same page and people took away very different things from the exact same meeting. That’s what this is about.

The science of the unique brain that we all listen to in four different things, we might feel that we’re on the same page and we’re actually walking away with very different takeaways from the exact same interaction. ECHO Listening Model uses a scientifically validated assessment tool that identifies our habitual listening preferences. I want to make a distinction here that we hear with our ears, but we listen and make sense of what we hear with our brain.

We hear with our ears, but we listen and make sense of what we hear with our brains. Click To Tweet

I love that. Say that again, please.

We hear with our ears, but we actually listen with our brain.

What are the four quadrants of the ECHO System? Give us a basic overview.

Very high-level connective listening is an external filter. This is someone who is listening, taking in information, and applying it to the experience of others or the impact on others. They’re taking in, and then they’re thinking about, “What does this mean for my team, my clients, my vendors, and the outcome on people?” This is a listener who tends to favor feelings over facts and is in tune with tone of voice, feeling in the room, harmony, and alignment. They may become almost the caretaker of a conversation when there are other people involved. They tend to overlook what the information means for them personally and how it impacts them. They often have a lot of experience to bring to a situation or the table, and it gets overlooked in favor of caretaking the group or caretaking others.

Which of the four quadrants is that?

That’s called connective listening. We can compare or contrast that with reflective listening, which is another habit. If a listener has reflective listening as their dominant preference, they tend to filter information through the lens of what it means to them personally, how they can use that information to get their job done, how interested they are in that information, how they can personally apply it, or what they know about it already or have seen in their past experience.

I want to make it very clear that this is not a listener who is a selfish person. ECHO does not identify personality traits. It’s not about hardwired characteristics. It’s about habitual preferences or the cognitive process of listening. Someone who’s highly reflective has a very deep database of experience that they’re consistently comparing what they hear to what they already know or what they’re interested in. They’ll speak from their own experience when they do articulate their opinion in a group setting. They may be hesitant to do that initially. These are folks who, in a meeting, might appear to be almost disengaged, and then later, they’ll come and they’ll share their perspective. It’s often well thought out because it’s grounded in their experience.

SWGR Allison O'Brien | Listening Intelligence

Listening Intelligence: ECHO does not identify personality traits. It’s not about hardwired characteristics. It’s really about habitual preferences or the cognitive process of listening.

 

Would it be fair to say, if I’m understanding you, that a reflective listener takes in the information and processes it through what they know?

Yes.

This is where metaphors are useful because you want to choose a metaphor that people can relate to. That’s probably good for reflective listeners.

Here’s the thing. It’s not necessarily entirely what they already know. It’s also what they’re interested in. For example, a highly reflective listener on a team who doesn’t have any experience with something, but has an interest in it may be your magic bullet on the team if you need to do the research and have someone become a subject matter expert. If they’re interested, they’re going to leave that meeting and they’re going to start googling. They’re going to sign up for a course. They are going to become the one who knows and adds tremendous value in that way. It’s not entirely past experience, but also, what it means for them, the value that they see in it, and the value that they can personally contribute.

I’m going to talk about the other two habits, but briefly, I’d love to chat about the assumptions that we often make about different types of listeners based on what we observe in their body language. We often make a lot of assumptions about other people and their level of interest, their level of engagement, or whether they’re interested and listening based on what we see in how they show up in their bodies.

Connective listeners, for example, tend to appear very engaged, supportive, and in it with the speaker. A connective listener will often lean in, make a lot of eye contact, nod, verbal, encouragement. They do appear to be actively engaged and listening, and that may not be the case. Because they’re the caretakers, they often show up very encouraging in their body language, but they may be doing something else entirely in their head. I don’t know if this has happened to you, Elizabeth, but at times, I appeared engaged and I was doing my grocery list or thinking about what time I had to pick up my kids from school.

I’m actually the other way around. I have learned to adjust my body language because when I’m thinking, my face gets very grim. I watched my mother do this, same face. I fall into the same thing, and then people come up to me and they say, “Are you mad at me?” I go, “No. Why? I was just thinking.”

That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about of the assumptions that we make about people when we observe their body language and whether or not they have certain feelings about what we’re saying, if it makes sense to them, if they agree, or if they disagree. Reflective listeners, going back to this habit, are often misunderstood by the rest of the team because when they’re taking in information and going through their database, they often look checked out, disinterested, or disengaged. They tend to gaze at the horizon while they’re listening, or beyond the speaker, often leaning back, arms crossed. They do appear to be somewhere else entirely.

Given that they’re not always participants in the conversation in terms of contributing their thoughts at the moment, they can be perceived as, at times, not team players. Once they have that time to process, think through, and line up their thoughts, when they come back and they share, it’s often profound and so well thought out, but it comes later. That takes people off guard and they think, “Why didn’t you say that in a meeting? We needed that then. We could’ve used that.” They just weren’t ready. They have to process and filter.

Some people have better ideas the next day. I remember when I worked with super creative people in the opera business and I was beginning. I always thought, “Why can’t I have a million ideas at a time?” I was working with someone. I’m a better problem solver who can process it. I have to think about it overnight.

I remember sitting in rehearsal with a very famous director and conductor, and I was just a measly assistant. The director suggested an idea to the conductor, and the conductor said, “Let me think about it overnight. You know me. I’m better if I can think about it overnight.” I thought, “Thank God, I’m not the only one.” If this super famous conductor needs to think about something new overnight before he knows whether he wants to do it, it’s got to be okay.

Once we know that about our colleagues, if we know we have someone that we work with who’s highly reflective in their listening, we can give them a heads up about what we want their thoughts on at times. We know once it comes, it’s going to be well thought out versus putting them on the spot and demanding an answer at the moment. Sometimes when we’re working with reflective listeners, we have to exercise some patience and trust that it’s coming.

We’ve talked about the connective and the reflective. Where do the analytical and conceptual listeners fit in?

Our dominant analytical listeners are often misunderstood as well but for different reasons. These are folks who are processing through the lens of data, information, accuracy, what is right, what has been proven or can be proven to get to the right outcome, and create a course of action that’s chosen to produce that right outcome. They’re unbiased in their listening and their decision-making. They’re looking at the information for merit and efficacy.

At times, when I say they’re misinterpreted or judged by their colleagues, they want to make sure that it’s right and they’re going to go deep into the weeds to make sure that it’s right. They might ask questions of others who are sharing information that almost seems to be challenging the credibility of that person or speaker. They’re not concerned about the person. They’re concerned about the credibility of the information.

They’re often judged as the naysayer, the skeptic, or the hole poker when sometimes that’s exactly what the team needs, which is to slow them down and make sure that resources are allocated appropriately and that things have been thought through from a more diagnostic lens. Our analytical listeners are often misperceived as an outlier or not team player at times when their gift to the team is to have a finger on the pulse of what is.

Our conceptual listeners are quite different from that. They’re listening for big-picture and abstract ideas. They hear patterns. They’re listening for potentiality and possibilities. It’s more future-oriented listening. They get excited about what information inspires them. They’re not done with what is being shared. When I talk about them listening in patterns, they can make connections between hearing very disparate ideas that make complete sense to them. It’s a very non-linear way of processing information and solution-oriented thinking. Sometimes our highly conceptual listeners are perceived as coming out of left field with their ideas, impulsively sharing at times, or rambling when they share.

They do tend to process out loud and sometimes overshare. In their body language, you can often tell a highly conceptual listener by the amount of movement, lots of hand gestures, urgency almost in body language, shifting, and fidgeting. Sometimes our highly conceptual listeners can’t even sit in their chair when they’re speaking. They get up, they walk around, and they go to the whiteboard.

Contrast that with our highly analytical listener who tends to have that look that you were talking about before, almost a skeptical look or a furrowed brow. They’re evaluating the information, but sometimes it can show up in the body as looking like they’re in disagreement or give the impression that they don’t believe when really the expression is evaluation from a non-biased lens.

Tell me quickly. Why is this different from a personality system like DISC or Myers-Briggs? It’s not the same. When I first heard about it, I said, “Same old,” but this is different.

The instruments measure different things. That said, all assessments have value, especially when we layer them. For a leader or anyone who’s looking to make any kind of shift in their career trajectory, like you said, someone who wants to be heard and feels like they’re not at that point, the more that they can learn about themselves, the better. When we layer different types of assessments, personality, behaviors, and motivations with cognitive assessments like ECHO or Emergenetics, when we layer them together, we get a bigger and fuller picture of who we are, what drives us, and more information on how we might shift or adapt to meet different circumstances and different people in different situations.

SWGR Allison O'Brien | Listening Intelligence

Listening Intelligence: The more that they can learn about themselves, the better.

 

Something like a DISC or Myers-Briggs measures or something that is more hardwired in us, who we are. If we shift our job, our role, or our company, those are things that are not going to change. For example, if we are truly an extrovert or an introvert by changing how many people we’re with or the types of networking situations we put ourselves in, our personality is not going to change.

Whereas with the cognitive assessment, the ECHO Model, because our listening behaviors are habit-based, we can shift them when we become aware of them. In any given situation, if we pause to get present and tune in to what habits we are relying on at that moment, is it the most appropriate and effective for the intended outcome? Do we need to shift that to add more value to a situation? Do we need to shift how we’re showing up in order to be heard by the other people in the room around the table? We can do that with the results of this habit-based tool.

Awareness is everything. That’s what I keep saying. Rule number one is to know your audience, make it about them, and use strategic empathy. This fits very well with my technique of strategic empathy, where if you listen, put yourself into the shoes of your listeners, and know how they listen and how they take in information, then you can give them information in a way that they can hear it.

If you listen and put yourself into the shoes of your listeners and know how they listen and how they take in information, then you can give them information in a way that they can hear it. Click To Tweet

You nailed what we are all about with ECHO, with Effective Communication for Healthy Organizations. 1) Be aware of yourself. Gain great awareness around yourself, your own habits, and your own distractions. 2) Be very attentive to the cues that your audience is giving you. Not just their body language. That’s one piece of the puzzle. It helps us to assess in some way, but the language choices and the questions that they ask.

Different listeners will use very different language choices when they’re asking us questions. That can help us identify what it is that’s important to them. When they give us those cues and we tune into them, we can shift how we deliver information so that they can take it in easier and it’s easier for them. I’m not saying dumb it down. I’m saying shift the way that we deliver it so that they can truly absorb it.

I keep saying, “You’re still you and it’s still your ideas. You’re just saying it in a way that they can hear it better.”

Here’s something I love to ask people because we have all these perceptions about what a good listener is or what a bad listener is. Sometimes people say, “I’m a great listener.” I say, “What is it that has you say that?” I pay attention. I don’t multitask. I make a lot of eye contact. I say, “That’s super interesting,” and it may be true, but the true test of whether or not someone is a good listener is not that they’ve given themselves that title. If you think about when you are in communication with someone, what is it that makes you feel like they’re a great listener? You walk away feeling heard. You walk away feeling understood, respected, and valued. We can’t give ourselves the title of a good listener. That has to be given to us by our conversational partners.

We can't give ourselves the title of a good listener; our conversational partners should give that to us. Click To Tweet

I love it. I’m going to have to bring you back. There’s certainly more that we’re going to talk about. You and I are going to do a joint program one of these days because we have so much to talk about. That’s a good way to end. You have to be perceived as a great listener. You can’t just give yourself the title. Allison O’Brien, thank you so much for sharing the tiniest fraction of all that you do. You do so very much. I appreciate having you on the show. If you enjoyed this conversation, please subscribe, follow us on YouTube, tell your friends, and especially leave us a good review on Apple Podcasts. That’s the one that matters. I hope you’ll come back for the next conversation. I’ll see you on the next one.

 

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About Allison O’Brien

SWGR Allison O'Brien | Listening IntelligenceAllison O’Brien is a Facilitator and Master Trainer with ECHO Listening Intelligence based in Boulder, Colorado. Since 2014 she has been helping to build a worldwide network of listening experts, certifying Practitioners to deliver the ECHO Listening Profile in 10 countries and across 4 continents.

Within a broad scope of work; executive leadership coaching, leadership training for new, emerging, and mid-level managers, workplace conflict resolution and corporate communication training focused on Listening, Allison uses two assessment tools, The ECHO Listening Profile and The Conflict Dynamics Profile. Both instruments provide the crucial insights needed for shifting the way people receive information, share information, and manage their emotions in challenging situations. “My genuine interest in people and what makes us tick, has paved the way for a career helping individuals and companies transform the way they do business through the standpoint of culture, communication and most importantly, listening.

“For decades I’ve been intrigued by human interaction, and the question of what is it that creates connection and how or why do we withdraw and disengage from each other? As I got deeper into my career and had many more interactions in business settings, the follow-up question became, how does the way we communicate impact how we work with others, lead, make difficult decisions collaboratively, and also show up for the people that we love? In asking these questions, it became very clear that my life’s purpose is to change the way people live, love and do business, for the better. I believe it’s rare to work every day in a job that aligns 100% with your core values, passion and purpose. I am incredibly fortunate and profoundly grateful to be able to say, without hesitation, that this is true for me.”