Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. It sounds easy enough, but the art of imparting self-sufficiency is much more challenging in practice.
Say a coworker comes to you with a problem. Maybe you’re a problem solver by nature. Maybe you feel you’ve had that same problem before and know the answer. Maybe you’re pressed for time and simply giving them a shortcut feels like the most efficient action.
While this kind of response can come from a place of generosity and empathy — from a desire to let the speaker know they’re not alone in this experience and provide them with a quick remedy — it’s a mistake. No matter how well-intentioned, it means that you’ve stopped listening and started making judgments about the situation from the perspective of your own biases, needs and lived experiences.
Enter authentic listening.
The practice begins by humbly acknowledging that the person in front of you is as unique as a thumbprint. Perhaps you can relate to what they’re going through, but you must understand that you have very different internal worlds, with singular lived experiences, perceptions, histories and views. This diversity can be your company’s greatest asset, freeing you from the echo chamber of shared perspectives and challenging the status quo.
It all starts with truly, deeply listening to those perspectives.
How can you practice authentic listening at work?
Don’t interject, project, correct or advise. Set aside your agenda and listen with openness. Let curiosity be your guide, and ask powerful questions. Powerful questions are typically questions that a person cannot answer with a yes or no, and usually start with why, how, what or who. They are evocative in nature and require the person to go deeper within themselves to generate an answer. It invites them to move beyond their current paradigm of thinking and into new possibilities and perspectives.
For example, instead of asking “Do you have another option?” you could instead ask, “What other options are there?” This subtle shift encourages the speaker to consider that they already have the answer and frames them as the expert. Reflect back to them what you’re hearing them say, and trust that, just like you, they come equipped with an internal voice of wisdom that has the answers they are looking for. When you do this, you help employees to develop confidence in their instincts, and belief in their capability and resourcefulness.
The practice of authentic listening and employee-led problem solving validates the competence of the individual, and cultivates creativity and leadership at every level of an organization. Your role as guide is to demonstrate your whole-hearted belief that every person is uniquely qualified to best understand the situation they’re in and how to resolve it.
Affirming your faith in the wisdom of others not only fosters that faith in themselves, but it also it creates an environment that is ethical, innovative and inclusive by encouraging and amplifying every voice and perspective.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Taryn Watts is a Master Certified Coach and Founder of the Mind Rebel™ Academy, who trains and supports world-class coaches around the globe, helping them to step into their life’s work.