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What Modern Family Can Teach Us About Leadership

This weekend I found myself watching a clip from Modern Family. As I watched, I was reminded of an important skill of leadership that we all must place an emphasis on: listening. The scene I stumbled on was when Phil is at the spa, and his wife, Claire, calls in a panic. After he hangs up, he gets some free advice from his new friends at the spa. At one point Phil says, “Woah, woah, maybe it’s all the creams, but that made sense, girlfriends.” I’ve shared the clip below, so take a look at the scene if you’re unfamiliar, and then we’ll explore a bit about the importance of reflective listening and leadership.

So what leadership skill does Phil learn? It’s reflective listening. This is a skill that at first glance looks easy, but is deceptively difficult to master. Once the skill is mastered, a leader can work to improve and strengthen relationships. I’m sure we have all been in situations where you’re in a conversation, and you don’t either say or hear what was intended. You may not even realize immediately that communication with your team broke down. With reflective listening, the hope is avoid communication breakdowns, and guide a conversation in an alternate (less combative/tense) direction. When using the reflective listening strategy, people might paraphrase words, repeat phrases to understand issues, as Phil does. Done correctly, it’s a great tool, but it takes time to master. And certainly, this skill doesn’t, and shouldn’t, be used only in difficult conversations.

I’m sure many of us have been in situations where we have used reflective listening, or a manager has used the tactic on us. For me, one prime example is from a friend working on project that was on the verge of collapse. With a short deadline, her team simple could not spend cycles with non-productive communication. Sadly, from the get-go, two peers, who needed to work together for the projects success, routinely got into debates over boundaries. They each felt like boundaries were being crossed, turf was being stepped on, and they could not complete their respective work without feeling micromanaged by a peer. It’s a familiar tale, and a difficult situation for managers.

Like always, the product needed to come first, but in order to get the project done, there needed to be mediation between the peers. Without intervention, the project likely would fail. With deadlines so short, mediation couldn’t wait a day or two, in hopes the peers would figure it out themselves. My colleague met with both, and used reflective listening, asking questions and paraphrasing their comments. Ultimately, she was able to bring the project back, do a few quick fixes and everyone agreed to get the project done and move on. It was a success, and I was proud that she took the steps to listen, intervene and then react accordingly.

My colleagues example of leveraging reflective listening as a conflict mediation tool reminds us of the benefits of reflective listening, I’ve listed four below:

1. Improved feedback mechanisms: we all have blinders, and through reflective listening techniques, we can improve our feedback mechanisms with colleagues and peers. Sometimes we may not know how we come across or how we are perceived, but paraphrasing or asking targeted questions can clear any miscommunications.

2. Encourages engagement: ever feel yourself check-out during a conversation? You may get distracted and your mind wanders, reflective listening keeps you engaged in the conversation, and not going through the motions.

3. Avoids predatory listening: predatory listening is a dangerous form of selective listening. During an argument or conversation, someone may strategically wait for an issue to arise, and then choose to engage in the conversation. They are waiting for their moment, disregarding other facts, just to push a concept or point.

4. Deals with the right problem, work towards appropriate solutions: by asking the right kinds of questions and really understanding the correct issues, you can understand the root of the issue, and work towards a solution. That’s what we all want, fair and equitable solutions, and this means we need to listen.

As leaders, peers or friends, reflective listening can really work in tense situations. Above all, the strategy will only work if you’ve focused on building relationships with people, and they know, trust and are willing to listen to you.

It’s easy to jump two steps ahead of ourselves when thinking about leadership. That’s the case with listening, it’s a basic skill of leadership that we need to place more of an emphasis on. The track is getting old, but your organization is more complex than ever before. Now is the time to sharpen your listening skills, creating a sharp edge in your leadership toolkit. In doing so, you’ll find that you have a surefire weapon, and have created a strong foundation for effective communication in the workplace.

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