Listening Leaders

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For many of us, listening is a challenging skill to master. One could argue that listening is simple – it requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we really don’t have to do anything else. So what gets in the way?

While someone is speaking, our minds are busy reacting or filtering:

  • Assuming – I know what you are going to say
  • Solving – I wish you would finish so I can share my idea/answer
  • Disagreeing – I don’t agree with what you are saying
  • Processing – I can’t focus on this right now

Although we cannot turn off the filters completely, we can develop our awareness to catch ourselves when our attention is distracted by our internal reactions. A previous issue of The Navigator focused on how to ask effective questions so the other side of the coin is how to enhance our listening capability to really mine the questions.

A committed listener helps people think more clearly, work through
unresolved issues, and discover the solutions they have inside them.

—Robert Hargrove, Masterful Coaching, 2008

Listening Tips

We are all aware of the common techniques for actively listening such as…

  • Limiting distractions
  • Restating key points
  • Asking for clarification
  • Allowing others to finish their sentences

Powerful Toolkit Strategies

Practice controlling your attention. One thing that Bill Clinton is known for is his ability to connect very quickly with others by giving them his undivided attention. The key to controlling your attention is to consciously practice putting your attention where you want it to be and keeping it there. If your thoughts wander, simply acknowledge and then bring your mind back to the present moment. Practice this again and again and start with simpler tasks like eating your lunch. Progress to higher pressure situations as you gain mastery.

Learn to listen to all of the information available during interactions. Use your eyes to look for energy and body language. Notice thoughts, assumptions and beliefs. Sense feelings.

Be okay with silence. You don’t have to always reply or have a comment. A break in dialogue can give you a chance to collect your thoughts and communicate that you are absorbing and processing what was shared.

Practice mindfulness. Before you start your workday, sit quietly for three minutes and pay attention to your breathing. As your mind distracts you, just notice what comes up and bring yourself back to your breathing. Try it again mid-day and a third time near the end of the day. Stick with it for at least a week and see what happens.

In most cases, people know how to listen; they choose to turn it off and on. The techniques, above, can help us be less selective and more consistent with our listening practices.

Success Factors

Just like with any development plan, there are certain criteria that help ensure success.

Start by becoming specific. Deciding that you want to be a better listener is like saying you want to be a better parent. It is a start but not likely to get us far. Break it down and get clear on what is getting in your way. Identify your triggers and/or the times when you choose not to listen. Identify the specific behaviour you want to work on.

Seek feedback. Enlist the support of a colleague who is willing and able to provide you with regular and specific feedback on what changes you are making. For example, how aware are you of the non-verbal signals you give off that tell others that you are not listening?

Track and reflect on your progress. Make note of what you have been able to accomplish and the corresponding impact. What are you learning/noticing? What will you commit to do moving forward?


Coaching for Engagement: Achieving Results through Powerful Conversations by Bob Hancox, Russell Hunter, Kristann Boudreau, 2010. On a humorous note…check out the following clip from Everybody Loves Raymond

Listening to colleagues – their interpretations, their stories, what they find meaningful
in their work – always transforms our relationships. The act of listening always brings us closer.

—Margaret Wheatley, Finding Our Way, 2005