Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our ability to communicate, especially in the Lovecraftian horror of a zoom meeting, has become beyond challenging. Whether we are gently reminding others they are indeed still muted or trying to stay sane during calls that could have been a concise email, active listening is now the unsung hero of all our lives.
I learned the importance of the skill at an early age from my mother. Despite defying human limits regularly, she always insisted her true superpower was her ability to listen. When she asks, "how are you," her active engagement with the answer makes the greeting transcend its status as small talk fodder.
As leaders, we can take our skills a step further. Even when we are separated by our screens, we can create listening ecosystems where everyone’s ideas, thoughts, and lives are valued.
Active listening demands engaged interactions with those around us. It is necessary to recognize new perspectives with reciprocal understanding. However, once we develop active listening skills, we also have the responsibility to facilitate cultures based on listening, trust and honesty. As such, a listening ecosystem is an environment with quantifiable systems to prove a group is listening to each other. With simple systemic changes like surveys and feedback meetings, leaders can combat ego and ignorance with open communication practices.
Within nature, an ecosystem consists of abiotic and biotic components; nonliving things interact with living things and a new world is born. Listening ecosystems follow the same principle. When the abiotic mechanisms that quantify listening intersect with the biotic components (our team), we create a healthier environment. An article from the Harvard Business Review explores how a former CEO, Kevin Sharer, created a listening ecosystem with four simple questions:
Regularly sharing this survey encouraged challenging feedback. Sharer ensured his team knew he truly wanted to listen to their voices, changing the culture into a space where honesty always preceded hierarchy or ego.
As we march forward into 2022, take a moment to reflect on the culture within your life and what structures you can bring with you to demonstrate both your ability and desire to listen.
Arthur Schopenhauer closes his book of philosophical essays, Parerga and Paralipomena, with over three hundred miscellaneous parables. Despite occupying less than a page in a seemingly out-of-place section, his reflections on the near impossibility of true human connection continue to permeate across disciplines and pop culture. Schopenhauer exposits,
One cold winter's day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effect of their quills on one another, which made them again move apart. Now when the need for warmth once more brought them together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so that they were tossed between two evils, until they had discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another. (Schopenhauer, 649)
In essence, Schopenaur believed without transcending individuality, we are incapable of understanding each other. Distance is necessary to mitigate pain and such, we can never truly escape our loneliness. A scorpion to a frog or a porcupine to a porcupine, it is simply in our nature.
Yet, with all the wisdom of someone who still uses her hands to distinguish left from right, I believe he had a fundamental misunderstanding of human connection. He forgot that as leaders, we facilitate meaningful listening ecosystems. Listening with our hearts and our minds open is a terrifying risk. The environment may be challenging to create, but I firmly believe it is well within our power to conquer our supposedly lonely destinies. Six feet or ten screens away, listening makes distance melt like sugar and rain.
It is in the art of understanding when we remember we are not alone.