Miss Pray was my seventh-grade teacher at Woodrow Junior High School in Battle Creek, Michigan. She was in her seventies back then but sharp as a tack. Her thick white hair was always perfectly groomed, and her skin was taut across her strong cheekbones. She was intense, a disciplinarian who didn’t choose to smile much. And I loved her—she was a wonderful instructor.
One day Mom and I attended my parent-teacher conference together with Miss Pray. It wasn’t normal for the student to attend, but Miss Pray had requested my presence. I assumed it was going to be a great meeting. Perhaps she would bestow some kind of honor on me; after all, I had straight As and perfect attendance.
Miss Pray began the meeting by communicating directly to my mother and explaining that I was an excellent student. She said I grasped concepts quickly and was able to apply them in various situations. She appreciated my focus, attendance, and behavior while she was teaching. Things were going just as I’d expected.
Suddenly my eyes widened when she said, “Mrs. Manby, I wanted Joel to be here so we could discuss an issue together. I would like to speak to him directly, but I wanted you here so you could hear my words and help Joel become a better person.”
Forty years later, thinking about that conversation still opens a pit in my stomach. It came as a complete shock, and I had no clue what she was about to say.
Interrupting Others Kills Open Communication
Miss Pray continued, “Joel, you are a gifted leader. I have seen many people come through these halls, and you are at the very top in your ability to gain people’s trust, take control of a situation, rally those around you, and get things done. However, you are a very poor listener. I have watched you take over a class group project when you were not even assigned to be the leader. Then, what’s worse, you didn’t listen to others in the group when they tried to speak. You interrupted them and often cut them off.”
As the truth of her words began to sink in, she made her closing statement. “Joel, when you don’t listen to others, it sends them a very negative and unflattering message. You are communicating to them that they are not important. You are communicating to them that you are better than they are. You have the natural ability to be a great leader, but you are going to have to fix your listening skills, or you will be limited in how far you can go.”
I sat there in silence, a bit stunned. I felt horrible, and deep down, I knew her assessment was accurate. Mom thanked Miss Pray for her care and concern, and we left. I never forgot that day.
WHAT INTERRUPTING COMMUNICATES TO YOUR TEAM
Miss Pray was right. When we interrupt or respond without taking account of what others have said, we send several messages—none of them good:
- My idea is greater than your idea, so I don’t have to listen.
- Interrupting you is okay because your response isn’t that important.
- I’m not listening to you because I’m already preparing my response.
The truth is this: interrupting is a sign of distrust.
That’s a strong statement, but it’s undeniable. Hard-driving leaders who often interrupt will always justify their behavior. “I already know where that person’s headed, and I want to save time.” Or, “I’m just efficient and don’t have time to waste.” If interruption is seen as simply being rude, many leaders don’t think it needs to be changed—a little rudeness in an organization isn’t the end of the world. However, when leaders understand that interrupting others shows a lack of trust, the notion of interruptions gains significance.
Would your employees or coworkers rate you as a good listener or a poor listener? Would they say you listen without interrupting? Would they say you hear them? If you struggle with listening well, as I did early in my life and career, these simple steps can help:
1. DON’T ASSUME YOU ALREADY KNOW.
Don’t say, “I understand how you feel, but…” Most people won’t feel that you understand, especially if you discount their thinking and immediately move in a different direction.
2. SUM UP WHAT THEY’VE SAID.
Summarize what you have heard. If you really trust them, they will agree with your summary and feel as if their idea has been given a fair hearing.
3. COMMUNICATE THE “WHY” BEHIND YOUR DECISION.
If you go a different direction, articulate why. Always try to explain your logic when differing with some of your team. They may not agree, and that’s okay, but you’ll all know what everyone is thinking.
Listening well is critical because it communicates trust and builds a team’s sense of camaraderie and cohesion. Poor listening is more than forgivable rudeness: it’s a breach of trust and not a quality of leading with love.
Do these behaviors and values resonate with your leadership style, or do they expose an underdeveloped leadership skill that you would like to develop?
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