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Leadership and Listening: Is It Time for a Talking Diet?

Leadership and Listening: Is It Time for a Talking Diet?
Posted on Wednesday, March 8, 2023 by Bridget Mortland

For a third of employees, their manager is the most important factor in feeling valued. Empathetic leaders make employees feel safe being their authentic selves at work.

Many companies, like ourselves, have formalized employee listening strategies in place—from pulse surveys to focus groups and engagement software. But while these broad tactics are critical to company culture and employee satisfaction, how effectively are leaders listening to employees on a one-to-one level?

As a leader or manager (or member of the human species) you may find your mind wandering while the other person is talking. Or maybe you’re formulating a response, whether to offer support and words of wisdom or as a defensive posture. You might even be jumping to conclusions.

And, while all of this is going on rapid fire in your brain, you feel that you heard what the other person is saying—or you at least captured the essence—but that probably isn’t true.

To test the other person’s listening skills, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would sometimes greet people with, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” Sadly, most people carried on. As the story goes, only once did someone reply, “I’m sure she had it coming.”

We only retain about half of what others say, despite 96% of people saying they’re good listeners. How often do you remember your server’s name or that person you just met and shook hands with?

All of this is normal human nature. But how can we do better?

What is the 80/20 Talking Diet?

Berwick “Mahdi” Davenport, CEO of Soul Focused Group, life coach, and anti-racist organizer, put himself on a talking diet after his teenage daughter said he was a “lousy father.”

In an episode of The Empathy Edge podcast, Mahdi describes how he picked his daughter up from school one day and in a moment of seeking validation, he asked her, “Am I a good father?”

Instead of responding with affirmation, she said, “Daddy you don’t listen to a thing. I come to you all the time and share things and you have no recollection of it.”

Mahdi maintains the same thing that made him a lousy father is the same thing that makes people lousy leaders: they don’t listen.

After this revelation, Mahdi put himself on a talking diet—80% listening and 20% talking.

For three years he dedicated himself to practicing this diet. Along the way, he discovered how truly disconnected he had been from people and credits the diet with transforming his leadership skills.

“People when you listen to them [will] tell you how to lead them,” says Mahid. The ability to be curious and actively listen enables trust and “there is nothing more important to a voice than being heard.”

Some key takeaways from Mahdi’s talking diet include:  

  • When you talk less and listen more, your leadership will transform.
  • The ultimate human need is significance: People want to matter. Authentic participation and engagement go up the more people know that they matter.
  • Leaders must be more than bosses, more than supervisors: They must be people invested in the growth and development of people’s lives in a balanced way. The job can’t be the top value in people’s lives. That’s the new landscape.
  • When we are not authentic to ourselves and to those around us, people notice and feel that, and it causes a disconnect.

Active listening and empathetic leadership go hand-in-hand.

In our 2022 State of Workplace Empathy study, 69% of employees said their organizations are empathetic, down from 72% in 2021. That’s nearly one-third of employees who don’t feel heard, understood, or appreciated.

We also found that 77% of CEOs worry they will lose respect if they’re too empathetic. While a dismaying finding, employees often turn to their direct manager to demonstrate empathy when needed.

More than one-third of employees say their manager has the greatest impact on building an empathetic workplace.

That’s a heavy responsibility for many leaders. On the bright side, one of the most effective ways to put empathy into action is “empathetic listening.” Empathetic listening is a step beyond active listening. The goal is to not only understand what the other person is saying but empathize with their reasons for saying it. If leaders can stand in the other person’s shoes in this way and acknowledge their employee’s feelings, chances are they will not only feel heard, but also feel free to be their authentic selves.

Businessolver data found that workplace inclusivity remains dismayingly elusive for Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian employees. Across all these groups, nearly 1 in 4 said they don’t feel they can be their authentic selves at work.

Leaders have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to help employees flourish and feel connected, simply by practicing active and empathetic listening. Real listening builds psychological safety and helps organizations become more inclusive. It does not judge, make assumptions, or insert biases. It builds connections and trust.

Being a good listener is a conscious and constant endeavor. It takes practice and focus. But in the end, all your relationships will benefit, and your leadership will transform.

We believe empathy is mission critical. Thankfully, our employees agree, recognizing us on Forbes and Statista’s list of America’s Best Midsize Employers for the second year in a row.