By Renee Jensen
Active listening is an essential skill for anyone who leads others. Ensuring others feel heard and understood is part of what builds strong teams, but I have found that when you’re having a conversation as a team or with an individual, listening to what they aren’t saying is just as important as listening to what they are saying. I’m not just talking about body language (though that speaks volumes), but rather the omission of information or opinions or what isn’t laid out on the table.
This is a unique skill. It requires leaders to listen, but also to use their knowledge of their team and organization to observe what may be going on under the surface. It also requires the guts to get to the deeper questions under the voiced questions, the strong opinion under the shoulder shrug, or hear something that frankly you may not want to hear.
My team has been going through strategic planning. Together, we’re trying to discern the best direction for our organization and make decisions for the future. We are typically a cohesive, cooperative group, but during these conversations one staff member in particular was extremely resistant to the process. Most interesting was that this is a staff member who I think highly of, is normally a great team player and strong contributor. But in these strategy meetings he sat quietly and didn’t say a lot, and he didn’t have much to offer.
Full disclosure: my first reaction was one of frustration; I didn’t have time for drama. In that moment, I could have just been irritated with his lack of engagement and led the group forward without his input, but instead, I asked him one-on-one if there was anything he wanted to share. He said frankly, “I guess I just don’t believe the bullshit.” This leader is passionate about providing quality care to the underserved and felt that our strategy conversations revolved around meeting only the needs of the more fortunate members of the community. Because I was listening for what wasn’t being said, I was able to receive the gift of feedback that may not have surfaced in a larger group setting.
This was that moment where I needed to hear something I didn’t want to hear. But it allowed me the opportunity to take more time and explain that by earning revenue from wealthier members of our community, we would then be able to afford to better serve the underserved. More importantly, this feedback impressed upon me that I had not taken enough time to explain the broader picture, the bigger vision, or helped everyone on the team see where we were going and why. In the end we were able to reach an understanding of how the early strategies would ultimately support the fundamental goals of serving our entire community. This pause in the process allowed me to take steps necessary to get all the stakeholders on board and move forward with the entire team engaged.
The added benefit, or reward for me as a leader, of taking the time to seek uncomfortable feedback was earning the trust and respect from this individual. Not only did he better understand that our values truly were aligned, he felt heard and knew that his opinion mattered to me. He also knew that it was safe to disagree and that he could have an independent opinion from others in the room. Going forward, this leader has been one of my best champions. He has been a huge help taking on extra work or making impossible situations possible all because of our conversation about what wasn’t said that day.
Because I’m a leader that makes decisions quickly, I have to be especially disciplined in listening for what isn’t being said. I often check to make sure my team is with me. I ask, “Are your thumbs up?” If the whole team gives a thumbs up, we move forward. If I get a thumbs down or an ambivalent sideways thumb from even one person, I stop and ask, “What would it take to get you to a thumbs up?” Making progress together and stopping to clarify and find agreement can add depth and value to the decisions being made, even if it looks like the same decision on paper. The process matters.
I also practice listening to what isn’t said outside my work life. Have you ever had a disagreement with your partner and chose to resolve the issue by just not talking? Has your partner ever done or said something that really made you mad, and you simply just didn’t talk to them until you were good and ready? I know I have. Sometimes it is just to save a disagreement. Sometimes it just isn’t worth the energy. Sometimes I assume he doesn’t care how I feel. Other times, I am just simply stubborn.
I imagine these are similar reasons why people on our teams may also choose to not contribute at times. If I use my personal life as an example, when my husband finds me in a silent space, the best outcome would be for him to simply begin a kind, genuine, non-judgmental inquiry into why I am silent. Seems simple but in practice it is not. It takes guts to put your personal feelings aside and start what might be an uncomfortable conversation. This is true both at work and at home. If you take the time to sincerely care about understanding another person’s position before defending your own, you will be able to break through these communication barriers and ultimately build a stronger relationship because of it. I would like to tell you I am perfect at this, but I am not. Growing in this area has taken practice.
You can listen to what isn’t being said everywhere, and sometimes not saying anything is important too. At one of the places I most enjoy running with my dog, there is a friendly chocolate lab who loves to play with my frisky yellow lab. When we first met this dog, I quickly learned that his owner was deaf. I tried to start a conversation, and the man tried to brush me off. But when I made an effort to communicate with him without words, it developed into a beautiful friendship. Oftentimes when we cross paths and walk our dogs together for a while, we don’t say anything. The silence is so therapeutic, it strengthens the friendship. We listen to each other not with our ears but with our hearts and souls.
There is power in what isn’t said. It’s like a different language. Pay attention to what is communicated in silence—in work and life.
About Renee Jensen
Renee Jensen is a healthcare executive leader with over 19 years of experience in public hospital district operations and integrated healthcare systems. She writes about leadership and building high-performing teams at jensen2solutions.com.