In May, Adam Bryant interviewed Joel Peterson of JetBlue for the Corner Office column in the New York Times. Peterson stated that one of the main attributes that propelled him to top leadership positions at a young age was the ability to cultivate the trust of those around him. When Bryant asked him to describe that process, Peterson explained that those trusting relationships come as a “byproduct” of his habit of good listening.
“I’m a really good listener. It’s not a technique — I’m really interested in what people have to say… If you’re authentic, open, you call things as they are, you really are direct and you listen well, that develops trust.”
‘Good listening skills’ is a trope that enters most of our lives in our very first years of school and, as Peterson points out, an overly technical approach to this topic can give it a shallow cliché feel. But Peterson is also testifying to the fact that the art of listening is truly one of the foundational elements of building and maintaining relationships, as well as exercising leadership. Every day we make choices about how we embody this essential activity, and unquestionably those decisions have an impact on our personal and professional lives. In this blog post I want to briefly explore one aspect of listening that Peterson highlights his interview: “listening without an agenda.”
“When you have your own agenda when you’re listening to someone, what you’re doing is you’re formulating your response rather than processing what the other person is saying. You have to really be at home with yourself. If you have these driving needs to show off or be heard or whatever, then that kind of overwhelms the process. If you’re really grounded and at home with yourself, then you can actually get in the other person’s world, and I think that builds trust.”
This quote from Peterson’s interview drives home an oft lost point about “good listening”: it isn’t produced by simply adhering to a “checklist” of good listening strategies. Such a list might be useful in helping you to practice your self-awareness as a listener, but it isn’t enough just to tell your eyes and ears a few superficial instructions about what they are supposed to be doing during communication. You as a person in that conversation and you as a listener are ultimately not separate entities.
You can be ready to make eye-contact and nod your head to show active acknowledgement – both good listening practices – but you can’t achieve good listening without being mindful of the way you are entering the conversation more broadly. Have you already formulated your conclusions about what the other person has said? Are you prematurely honed in on a rigid perception of your interests and how you want to pursue them as you enter the conversation? Do you have personal trigger points with the person across the table? Perhaps an earlier conflict or a personal edge to your relationship? Any of these factors could impact who you area as a listener, and will require an extra layer of reflectivity to keep the space open for good listening.
As I emphasized in an earlier post on inquiry and reflective listening for leaders, listening is a complex three-part process that includes receiving, attending to and responding to oral and visual stimuli. It takes reflective awareness of all of those “moments” in the listening process to truly be a good listener. Exploring a nuanced understanding of dialogue can then build on how that good listening manifests in the broader context of communication processes.
Ultimately, there are unlimited possibilities for improving good listening on a technical level, but Peterson gives us an eloquently simple and genuine place to start: exercising a true interest in what your counterpart has to say. Get into their world. This is where the trust comes form. Any agenda will need to wait.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.