In the third century A.D., King Ts’ao sent his son, Prince T’ai, to the temple to study under the great spiritual leader, Pan Ku. Because Prince T’ai was to succeed his father as king, Pan Ku was to teach the boy the basics tenets of good leadership. When the prince arrived at the temple, the master sent him out alone to the Ming-Li Forest. After one year, the prince was to return to the temple to describe the sound of the forest.
When Prince T’ai returned, Pan Ku asked the boy to describe all that he could hear. “Master,” replied the prince, “I could hear the cuckoos sing, the leaves rustle, the hummingbirds hum, the crickets chirp, the grass blow, the bees buzz, and the wind whisper and holler.” When the prince had finished, the master told him to go back to the forest to listen to what more he could hear. The prince was puzzled by the master’s request. Had he not discerned every sound already?
For days and nights on end, the young prince sat alone in the forest listening, but he heard no sounds other than those he had already heard. Then one morning, as the prince sat silently beneath the trees, he started to discern faint sounds unlike those he had heard before. The more acutely he listened, the clearer the sounds became. A feeling of enlightenment enveloped the boy. “These must be the sounds the master wished me to discern,” he reflected.
When Prince T’ai returned to the temple, the master asked him what more he had heard. “Master,” responded the prince reverently, “when I listened most closely, I could hear the unheard – the sound of flowers opening, the sound of the sun warming the earth and the sound of the grass drinking the morning dew.” The master nodded approvingly. “To hear the unheard,” remarked Pan Ku, “is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing their feelings uncommunicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in his people, understand when something is wrong and meet the true needs of his citizens. The demise of states comes when leaders listen only to superficial words and do not penetrate deeply into the souls of the people to hear their true opinions, feelings and desires.” (Harvard Business Review, July/August 1992)
Politicians, government officials and business leaders alike should be listening acutely to understand the people whom they serve. Many are out of touch with the heartbeat of those on the ground and end up self-serving in the positions that they respectively hold. To listen acutely to understand means the following:
- Giving people the gift of your time – relationships need time to grow and mature. Intimacy, and subsequently understanding, needs periodic heart to heart chats to develop and grow.
- Being present – this involves saying “no” to distractions, even seemingly urgent ones, if one is to communicate that the other person is important and has value. Turn technology off for crucial conversations.
- Offering focused attention – body language (like eye contact and posture) conveys attitude, either positively or negatively. Make sure that there is a keenness in your body language to grow trust in the relationship.
- Listening for “below the surface” communication – ‘what is actually said’ and ‘what is really meant’ could be two different things. Attempt to understand the underpinning emotions being expressed.
- Checking for understanding – never assume that you totally understand the other party. Spend time repeating back/summarising the discussion to ensure that you have “got the point”.
- Empathising with any emotion that is communicated – identifying with the feelings of the individual will go a long way to grow the relationship and enhance understanding between the two of you.
Listening closely to people’s hearts is an essential skill for any leader. Confidence and trust are bred when a leader takes time to communicate deeply and attempts to understand the emotions being expressed. If done well, the same will elicit responsiveness, responsibility-taking, accountability and higher degrees of productivity and commitment.