Leading by Listening

Years ago, I spent time with my boss during the early days of a new job going on sales calls together. As we approached a meeting with a long-standing, major client, I asked what our approach during the conversation was going to be. My boss offered that my job was to do what I did best. When I asked what that was, he offered, “nothing, do nothing.” I didn’t curl up into a ball and roll to the nearest therapist’s office. I took it as the good natured ribbing it was that he was telling me loud and clear that my place was to be seen and not heard. I was there to listen and learn not contribute. I did what I was told and sat quietly doing little more than taking up a seat at the boardroom table. At one point during the conversation, there was a lull. My boss and the customer each sat quietly, neither saying a word. The silence was deafening. It seemed to last an incredibly long time. Several times, I was on the verge of saying something. I was desperate to fill the void with a voice even talking about something trivial and completely unrelated to the meeting. Finally, the customer began talking. He began talking about a subject separate from the core purpose of the conversation we were having. He talked at length about a separate problem he was facing. The silence spurred a complete redirect of the nature of the meeting. What went from a basic customer service check-in became an opportunity for our company to explore a substantially increased role supporting our client’s needs. Had my boss not sat with the silence, the client may never have shared their issue affording us a new opportunity.

As we walked back to the office after the meeting, I asked my boss whether he had been intentional in creating the silence. He said he told himself that he had said what he needed to say and wanted the client to take over the conversation from there. My boss said that he spoke to himself during the silence repeating over and over that the next one that talks loses. He created a personal game to keep him silent. By doing so, the client felt comfortable, eventually, filling in the blanks and sharing what they may not have entered the meeting thinking they would or could share. Consciously crafted silences can lead learning. Whether my boss knew it or not, his tactic was one very similar to what author Robert Caro uses. Caro is renown for writing world class biographies of remarkable individuals. He considers a secret sauce to his efforts “SU.” He writes these two letters at the top of his notebook to remind him to “shut up.” His ability to draw out from interviewees interesting anecdotes flows from his ability to resist filling silence. A big part of listening is doing nothing. When there’s a pause in a conversation, it’s not necessary to jump right in and fill it with another observation or question. Sit with the pause. Let the silence simmer. Caro consistently learned to let the moment linger until the interviewee reliably let their train of thought move into interesting areas. By doing nothing, Caro always learned something.

Listening seems like a passive act. However, when done well it’s incredibly effortful. It’s overcoming our insistence to jump in. Cliff Durfee creator of the Heart Talk Process notes that “Most communication resembles a Ping-Pong game in which people are merely preparing to slam their next point across; but pausing to understand differing points of view and associated feelings can turn apparent opponents into true members of the same team.” Too many of us treat conversations as competitions. We battle to be heard. Conversations are where our bias for action and desire to jump in and solve situations can hinder. Physician turned professor, Jerome Groopman, wrote How Doctors Think. In it he introduces his readers to studies that suggest the average doctor interrupts their patients at around 18 seconds into a visit. The patient is detailing the problem for which they are seeking help, and in less than 20 seconds doctors are jumping in to solve things. No matter how well intended, how capable, or how simple the medical situation is, does the patient leave these interactions feeling heard? Can the doctors truly be doing their best work when digging in to diagnosing in less than 20 seconds? Does the patient’s respect for the doctor grow? Is it reasonable that relevant information may be overlooked? If we pair the observation of almost immediate interruptions with the principal complaint in many medical malpractice law suits being poor bedside manner, we’re left with a takeaway that feeling heard is integral to our sense of healing and health. Is it possible that a rush to interrupt either is or can be construed as suggesting that the present task isn’t that important? The urge to intervene and help can indicate our sense of urgency to move on to the next, more pressing, item on our agenda.

Business legend, Tom Peters, In The Excellence Dividend invites us to consider that, “An obsession with listening is…the ultimate mark of respect….the heart and soul of engagement and thoughtfulness.” Peters has worked with many CEOs of small and large companies over decades. He considers listening as a characteristic shared by many of the leaders he admires. If you get better at listening, you’ll get better at your role. You’ll be more respected and appreciated. Your opinion will be sought more. Hearing others talk with reverence about those that listen well speaks to the value of the skill. Marshall Goldsmith, in a Fast Company article titled, “The Skill That Separates,” quotes an attorney speaking highly of another. “What impressed me was that when he asked a question, he waited for an answer. He not only listened…he made me feel like I was the only person in the room.” Our value in the eyes of others increases directly with our ability to listen. Our silence serves to communicate that someone else matters as does their perspective. Listening is about the other person, not you. The best listeners become seen by being invisible.

Mike Abrashoff wrote It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. In it he emphasizes the power of listening for leadership. Abrashoff writes, “I vowed to treat every encounter with every person on Benfold as the most important thing at that moment. It wasn’t easy, but my crew’s enthusiasm and ideas kept me going. It didn’t take me long to realize that my young crew was smart, talented and full of good ideas that usually came to nothing because no one in charge had ever listened to them. I decided that my job was to listen aggressively.” Abrashoff tacked in the opposite direction of what we think of as command and control. He moved from lecturing to listening. He learned that the answers didn’t have to flow from the top but could come best from those with firsthand experience with problems. He flipped the standard military script and led by listening.

The results? Abrashoff’s ship, the Benfold, morphed from bottom of the ranks to tip top. In less than two years, Abrashoff moved a ship from having high sailor turnover and mis-managed finances to having the lowest turnover in the Navy while operating at 75% of its budget. Questions fed Abrashoff’s listening. He leaned in and learned from his sailors. When he took charge of the ship, he made time to have personal conversations with each sailor. This took an incredible amount of time. In these conversations, Abrashoff asked questions like, what do you like best about this boat, what do you like least, and what would you change if you could? He listened and acted on their input. Even though he was in charge, he saw his responsibility as leading by learning instead of dictating direction. He cultivated commitment from his crew by having faith that they knew how to make things better and wanted to participate in being part of a winning team. Everyone’s experience on the ship as well as its performance improved because of its leader’s willingness to listen.

A lesson of listening and leadership is borne in the phrase, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This statement may have had its origination as part of training for medical professionals in the 1960s. It was done to help practitioners avoid the bias to intervene noted earlier. Listening, empathizing, and simply being present can be as meaningful to a patient as can the book knowledge of a physician. Our ability to influence and direct others follows their willingness to listen. All of us are less likely to listen when we feel a message is being forced upon us. For our message to sink in, it must be let in. If we lead with listening we open the door to our later message being let in. Jack Canfield in The Success Principles observes, “People can’t listen until they have been heard. They first need to get whatever is bothering them off their chest.” The better we are at listening, the more likely we are to be heard. Dean Rusk, a former US Secretary of State, has said, “The best way to persuade someone is with your ears, by listening to them.”

The good news is that listening is a skill that can be developed. It starts by understanding that listening isn’t passive, it’s active. It’s work. Hard work. It’s not checking out, smiling and nodding, or thinking about the insight you’re keen to contribute. Peters writes, “I firmly believe that if, after a half-hour conversation, you are not exhausted, you were not seriously/fiercely/aggressively attentive.” Listening well is devoting our attention to someone else. It’s a full allocation of focus on the speaker. Our attention is the greatest gift we can give. Listening is important enough to be one of The Success Principles Jack Canfield offers in his book of the same name. In a chapter titled, Be Hear Now, Canfield talks about the “art of paying thoughtful attention.” Listening represents a cost. We’re investing our attention by listening. What are some ways we can get better at listening?

The starting point is to treat listening as active instead of passive. To listen we must be present. Be here now so you can hear now. Get your mind right. Just as in our general work day, distractions remain the devil. Drop in demands for our attention can sink a conversation quickly. If we’re drawn from a deep task into a spontaneous conversation, it may take time for our brain to shift from the task to listening. If we want to be at our best for a conversation, we should work to schedule them in order to give ourselves a chance to clear our mental decks. Then, once in a conversation great listeners ensure interruptions are prevented. Ringing phones are ignored. Better yet, they are put on do not disturb mode before the conversation begins. Cellphones are put away. Doors are closed and assistants instructed to not interrupt the meeting.

What does listening look like? How do others know we’re listening? What is it about us we should show? In The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey observes that listening is done with more than our ears, “it means to also listen with your eyes and your heart.” We want to be looking at the person, not just their eyes, but their body and mannerisms. We want all of us turned towards them reflecting they have our attention. What are we listening for beyond words? What is the tone of your speaker? Are they agitated, nervous, disinterested? What is their tone communicating? Independent of their words, can you reflect back what you hear their emotions to be? For example, “You sound frustrated, am I hearing you correctly?” We can go further by listening while looking. What is the body language of our speaker suggesting? Is there tension in their body? Are they vibrating with positive or negative energy? Is there fidgeting? What is their posture like? What are they doing with their hands? What is the message behind the words being communicated? Our tone and body language represent as much or more than the words we speak. There’s a lifetime of lessons to be learned in the art of reading others.

From here, as my former boss demonstrated, a good listener allows for pauses. These aren’t moments to jump in. They are where the talker’s mind is collecting steam and percolating ideas. Let them use that time to formulate the next direction of the conversation. If there’s a pause, invite them to continue by calmly nodding. You could also ask them if there’s anything else on their mind. Asking questions is a way of communicating that you’re paying attention. Questions are a way to seek clarity and probe deeper. We can’t learn without listening. Jack Canfield in the Success Principles encourages, “Work to develop an attitude of curiosity. Be curious about other people, what they feel, how they think, how they see the world. What are their hopes, dreams, and fears? What are their aspirations? What obstacles are they facing in their lives?”

By now we’re realizing there’s a lot involved in listening. Taking notes will help record key elements of the conversation. Moreover, taking notes signifies that what the other person is saying is worthwhile. You want to get it right. Notes help to stay focused on the speaker’s message. It’s a way to reflect your respect of the other person and their message. It demonstrates that your focus is on them not other things. Your notes can then become a reflection of your listening and be provided after a conversation. The follow up can further reinforce the message that the conversation was important to you as was the contribution of the speaker. You can also seek confirmation that your notes accurately reflect what was said asking for them to input any misunderstandings. Jocelyn Glei in Unsubscribe notes that this “kind of conscientious follow-up is a skill that is overlooked and underrated by many.” Besides following up with summary notes, leaders of listening take time to try to debrief digital meetings with one on one conversations. They check in individually to see if their interpretation of information or read of the room is similar to that experienced by others. They actively seek input from others to the conversation. They inquire as to how others are doing personally. Are there things that may be interfering with their ability to participate in a conversation? Are there distractions in their home environment? Are there personal problems on their radar restricting the ability to focus on what is being discussed?

In spite of the appreciation we have for good listeners, we see our listening skills worsening in today’s world. Digital distance depersonalizes our interactions. We seem to have traded empathy for efficiency in our interactions. As a result, listening is becoming a lost art that now has heightened value. It’s a proven approach to being both liked and heard. It’s one of those little things that can make a big difference. By doing less talking and more listening, we can differentiate ourselves and add value to those around us.

“Listen a hundred times. Ponder a thousand times. Speak once.” Folk wisdom.