Have you been graced with the ability to formulate full arguments, defenses, and rebuttals in your mind before the person you’re having a conversation with has even finished their first sentence? I have, and I’m not exactly proud of it. Recently I committed an embarrassing leadership faux paux. I knew better, and yet I found myself in the middle of a “leadership fail” all because I wasn’t being a good listener.
I did the very thing that drives me bonkers when people do it to me… the thing that I teach my children not to do… the very thing I know every leader should never do. I interrupted someone. Not once, but multiple times. It was bad. So bad that right in the middle of the meeting, after rapid-fire interruptions and interjections from yours truly, my colleague called me out on it. Right there, in front of my boss and coworkers.
It was the best course-correct that I have had in awhile, and here is why. I had gotten lazy. Instead of listening, I was defensive, and I started in with a barrage of “but… wait… ugh…” followed by raising my hand multiple times (yes, I’m that annoying person), until finally he blurted out mid-sentence, “Can you just stop interrupting? I can’t even get a complete sentence out. It’s like I’m trying to have a conversation with someone and my six-year-old won’t stop talking to me.” He was exactly right. I was acting like a six-year-old.
It might sound brutal, but I needed to hear it. In that moment, I had a choice: I could acknowledge that my co-worker was right, apologize, and move forward in the conversation, or I could clam up and wallow in the shame of what I perceived to be a total failure on my part. You see, when I’m wrong, when my idea is overlooked, when I get corrected in front of people, even when I take a risk and am rejected, my tendency is to pull back and close down. But on this particular day I chose to apologize and stay engaged, and that was a huge milestone for me.
Through that whole interaction, my boss was listening too. The next day we happened to be in the parking lot together as I was leaving work, and he asked me how I was doing after that meeting. “Oh I’m fine,” I said, “I’m just so embarrassed I acted like that. He was totally right and I shouldn’t have interrupted him like that.” His response back to me was surprising. “We need your passion,” he said, “We all do things like that. We all need to work on being better listeners.” Then he said words I didn’t expect to hear—that he was proud of me for not shutting down, that he noticed I kept moving forward and still contributed to the conversation for the rest of the meeting.
Right there in the parking lot, my boss taught me another lesson about listening. He was listening to my passion. He was listening to my ideas. Even when I had messed up earlier in the meeting, he didn’t shut me down or exclude me from the rest of the conversation.
If you’re at all familiar with the Bible, then the phrase, “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19) probably pops into your mind every so often. But the Bible also has a lot to say about the benefits of listening to wise instruction. Proverbs 19:20 says, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” Likewise, Proverbs 25:12 praises the quality of not just listening, but listening to timely correction, “Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.”
In my case, I received a two-for-the-price-of-one lesson in leadership and listening. Leaders listen to wise instruction and embrace timely correction; and I also learned what it feels like to really be heard. I want to be the kind of leader that gives that same courtesy to others: a listening ear and a listening heart.
Kristina Sabestinas lives in Spokane, WA where she enjoys drinking really good coffee and raising her three boys alongside her husband, Justin. She has spent most of her career in government and political work, and has recently transitioned to working with her parents at the church they have pastored for over 25 years. You can hear some of her messages at: victoryfaith.org/faithcast.