Park Perspectives: Becoming a more compassionate leader through better listening

By: Valerie Hanke, Two-Year MBA ‘23
Park fellows participate in team exercise

Park Fellows participate in a team-building exercise, requiring strong listening skills, to kick-off the semester

Park Perspectives are authored by Johnson’s Park Leadership Fellows.

This article talks about Compassion, one of Johnson’s four Cs of leadership. Read more about the 4Cs Leadership Framework here.

I come from a family that is “all in”. We’re doers, overachievers, go-the-extra-mile-ers. We jump in the cold water and start running when the gun goes off.

I know it’s in part what got me to where I am today, but I also recognize the shortcomings. Sometimes I’m too fast or miss details. Or I jump to “solve the problem” when people don’t really want a solution. The good intention is there, but simply tackling the problem doesn’t always drive the best results.

Why does this matter for leadership? It matters because leaders don’t just run around jumping in cold water. Great leaders also don’t just solve problems – they enable you to solve them yourself. They’re well intentioned and have the ability to understand and address an individual’s specific needs in a given context. At Johnson, this is how we understand compassion, one of our 4Cs of Leadership. Compassion doesn’t just mean having empathy, it also means actively showing individualized concern and practicing inclusive leadership.

Compassionate leaders actively seek out and consider different views and perspectives to inform better decision-making. They connect intention with impact. As part of my journey at Johnson, this is something I want to focus on. And I’m starting with becoming a better listener.

How good listening will make you more a compassionate leader

When you think about it, good leadership is really about understanding and enabling others, not about you.

So it only makes sense that good leadership starts with good listening.

When you’re listening to understand, you pay attention to the thoughts and feelings of the person speaking to you, and you begin to see the problem from the other person’s point of view. In that way, good listening gives us the tools to understand the effect something is having on a person, and can help us set the best way forward. Compassionate leaders do this very well.

There are four levels of listening

Are you a good listener? Before you answer, keep reading to see which “level” of listening you most often fall into:

  • MBA student actively listening
    Valerie set herself the goal of becoming a Level 3 listener throughout her MBA journey

    Level 0: This refers to the “reading-a-text-or-writing-an-email-in-parallel-to-our-conversation” kind of listening. (Hint: It’s not really listening).

  • Level 1: In this level of listening, you’ve stopped texting and are listening to the words being said, but you immediately think about how what is being said pertains to you personally. It often leads to a response that starts with “I always do that too! This one time…” or “I’m the same way…”, or “I don’t have that problem, for me it’s…”.
  • Level 2: Now you’re listening to what the other person is saying and are actually thinking about how it connects to how the person is doing or feeling. You might ask a follow-up question about what was just said, or ask to clarify something you don’t understand. The other person is starting to feel understood, and there is a good dialogue between you.
  • Level 3: This is the peak of listening. You’re not only listening to what is being communicated verbally, but also to what the other person’s body language is saying. Are they hesitating a bit? Are they having a difficult time communicating something? You’re listening to the whole message – and this is the goal. Being fully present, and being attuned to what is said or unsaid between the lines is really powerful.

Too often, our listening ends up at Level 1. Especially at business school, where we’re constantly running around practicing our pitches, reflecting on our own personal goals, and are working with tight deadlines, we sometimes forget to listen well. We can do better! And in order to become great leaders, we will need to do better.

Strategies for better listening

Based on my own experience, it’s impossible to become a Level 3 listener overnight. But there are ways to practice and hone the skill. The following tips are some I’ve collected from peers, readings, and course lectures:

  • Ask more questions. Even if you can relate something they said to your own experience, don’t do it. Ask things like “What do you mean by…”, or “How was that for you…”. Think about it as if you’re carrying the speaker’s ideas forward.
  • Pause for a couple seconds after the other person finishes talking. They might keep going.
  • Reflect back what you heard to show you’re actively listening and processing the information. You might be surprised to find that your interpretation is not always right.
  • Avoid any distractions and try to be present in the moment. Focus your concentration on the other person with your whole self.
  • Don’t give advice unless you’re specifically asked.
  • Don’t abruptly change the subject or move in a new direction.
  • Don’t interrupt.

When looking at the list you realize it’s really quite simple. For me, it’s about slowing down a bit and being present in order to get the full picture before driving forward. I hope for you there was also something to take away. If you want to read more about this topic, I can recommend this article, which talks about three ways in which leaders can listen with more empathy. If you have additional thoughts or ideas, please don’t hesitate to reach out – I’ll listen.

Valerie Hanke

Valerie Hanke, Two-Year MBA ‘23

Valerie Hanke is a first-year MBA candidate at Johnson. Prior to business school, she worked in marketing and communications, where she translated client insights and business priorities into actionable strategies. Valerie holds a BA in political science and economics from McGill University and received her MA in political science from the University of Konstanz in Germany.

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