Engaged Leadership and the Art of Listening
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

"You don't listen."

Have you heard that recently from your spouse, kids or friends? How about your boss or colleagues?

Being a bad listener not only affects your personal relationships, but also your professional ones. As a leader, knowing the problems your Soldiers are facing is the first step in helping them when they're struggling. However, before Soldiers can trust you with their troubles, they have to be able to trust you with their good news. They have to know they will be listened to.

"A lot of times we measure the strength of our relationships on (whether) we think people will be there when things go wrong, and this is not to say that is not important," said Jonathan Carter, a Master Resilience Trainer-Performance Expert (MRT-PE) out of Fort Belvoir, Va. "But the research behind active constructive responding finds that what really matters is being there for people when things go right."

The concept of active constructive responding (ACR) is based on the work of UC Santa Barbara social psychologist Dr. Shelly Gable, whose research focuses on social interaction and close relationships. She states that the way you respond to people day-to-day when they are sharing positive news is just as important as how you respond when they share bad news. In other words, if you want your Soldiers to turn to you when things go wrong, you must tune in to them when things are going right.

Staying engaged day-to-day with Soldiers can be difficult for leaders who already have a lot on their plate, but the Army has identified engaged leadership as a protective factor for a range of issues the Total Army Force may face, including sexual harassment and sexual assault, suicide and substance abuse.

"We believe engaged leadership, focused training and education will promote a supportive environment, prevent high-risk behaviors and increase Army readiness," said Gen. James McConville, Army Chief of Staff, last fall in a joint statement with the then-acting Secretary of the Army.

While we may assume that a loved one, a friend, or our Soldiers will turn to us when they are having a difficult time, if we have not put the effort into staying engaged in their life, that might not be the case. The good news is that ACR is an easy skill for leaders to learn and implement, and the Army already makes training on ACR available for free at R2 Performance Centers Army-wide. MRT-PEs from the R2 centers can go to your unit and customize sessions for you, your team leaders, your Soldiers and even your Family members, to teach the skill.

The ACR research on how we listen and respond is distilled to this: When somebody is sharing a positive event--talking about their day, talking about an accomplishment, talking about good news-- we have four possible ways we can respond;

1. offering understated or distracted support (passive constructive/conversation killer);

2. changing the focus of the conversation or ignoring it (passive destructive/conversation hijacker); 3. belittling the news and pointing out the negative (active destructive/joy thief);

or 4. taking authentic, enthusiastic interest and asking the person to elaborate (active constructive/joy multiplier).

Active constructive is the only method of responding that strengthens a relationship. ACR offers praise, asks for more information, and helps the person feel validated, enhancing the feeling of wellbeing for both parties. "It doesn't require a massive time investment, but the dividends you get with your Soldiers...just showing that you care, asking a couple of questions, is what gets them to (turn to you)," Carter said.

To get started learning this skill, Carter recommends a few easy tips to follow:

1. Be aware of how you respond to people in your life. Be honest about that assessment, even if it's hard realizing you may be a conversation hijacker or joy thief with some people.

2. Identify obstacles that tend to get in your way of responding actively and constructively--for example with your kids, do you immediately respond protectively, giving them advice? Or do you ignore them, letting yourself off the hook because you are busy or you find their news boring?

3. Identify your strengths to lean into when you try ACR. Are you curious? Ask questions to learn more. How about your love for your children? You don't have to care about the topic they are talking about, you just have to care about the person, which should help you tune in to them.

4. Practice. ACR is a skill like anything else, and it won't come overnight. "Just because you don't do it perfectly doesn't mean that relationship is going to disappear," Carter said. But practicing ACR will strengthen the relationship.

To schedule a session on ACR or other resilience-building skills, contact your nearest R2 Performance Center here: readyandresilient.army.mil