The Leader’s Basic Tool: Attentive Listening

Though it would be difficult to prove, the ability to listen well has a decisive impact on the actual bottom-line performance of any organization.

As our clients relate their stories of progress, I’m struck by a common thread: the gist of any organizational change process seems to be the increased ability of leaders to coach; and the gist of that coaching seems to be their ability and willingness to listen. Listening creates an atmosphere of safety and confidence in which mistakes are avoided, ideas are generated, teams are energized, opportunities are seized, and profits grow. Yet the practice of good listening, day in and day out, presents a formidable challenge.

Listening is more than the physical capacity to distinguish sounds. In fact, I know several deaf people I can characterize as superb listeners. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes: “You hear, Watson, but you do not listen!”


The Three Levels of Listening:

What are the words being spoken?
What is this person thinking?
What does she see?
What are his expressed concerns, issues, problems, ideas?
What does she say she needs now?
What outcomes does he talk about?

What seems to be stirred up in him now?
How is she feeling about what’s happening?
Is he excited, nervous, fearful, angry, confused, eager?
What emotion is conveyed in the way she speaks,
how she looks, her body language?

What is it that seems to really matter to him now?
What important values is she concerned about?
Is he clear and focused? Or is he muddled and unsure about
what has happened or about what needs to happen?
Has she gotten to the heart of the matter?


Assessing Your Willingness
There is significant risk in attentive listening. Reflect on the times you’ve been listened to with exquisite skill and you’ll know that there is, however briefly, a relationship that forms between the speaker and the listener – a dynamic sometimes almost tangible. This generates a level of intimacy and vulnerability that for many of us may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable, if not frightening. Listening for feelings and meanings, as well as for content, requires a quality of presence” characterized by a willingness to:
• Suspend our judgments
• Challenge our assumptions
• Change our minds
• Let go, at least for the moment, of our agenda
• Tap our emotions
• Face our dysfunctions
• Spend time
• Spend energy
• Risk the possibility that we will have to invest ourselves in another human being


Three Suggestions for Improving Your Listening
1. Since building rapport is essential for good listening, the first suggestion is: meet speakers where they’re at! If her head is spinning, start there. If he is preoccupied, begin with his preoccupations. If she seems in a deeper, more reflective mode, join her! Once you’ve established a sense of presence with people on this same level, you can move with them from there.

2. Assess the speaker’s desire. Ask yourself: How do I know this person wants to be listened to? By me, especially? In my zeal to demonstrate what an accomplished listener I am, I’ve been known to dive in, skills ablaze, in a concentrated display of listening aptitude, only to discover that I’m an unwelcome intruder! (I envision many people nodding in agreement, including my clients, business partner, wife, children, and the friends I don’t have anymore!) The point: Ask! A simple comment will serve, e.g.:
• What do you need from me now?
• Would it help to talk about it?
• I’m available if you need help sorting it out.
This avoids the embarrassment of the Boy Scout who insisted on helping the little old lady across the street, only to discover later that she didn’t want to go.

3. Sharpen your recognition. While some situations requiring good listening can be planned in advance — customer interactions, coaching sessions, performance evaluations, etc. — it’s important to recognize those unannounced circumstances when listening is vital. This would especially hold true in a “highly anxious” situation where time seems scarce and a leader would prefer quick compliance with minimum interaction. How to spot those situations? Be attuned to the words, tone, and body language of the speaker, who may be communicating the message “Please listen to me” by displaying:
• Edginess
• Discouragement
• Uncertainty
• Stifled excitement
• Perplexity
• Sarcasm/innuendo
• Paralysis
• Resistance/reluctance
• Eagerness
• Tension

Signs That Good Listening Has Taken Place
1. The speaker reaches a satisfying clarity about what had been a confusing jumble.
2. The speaker is stunned by the depth of his/her own understanding of an issue or event.
3. The speaker discovers, often with relief, a set of options or resources previously hidden.
4. The demeanor of the speaker (posture, facial expressions, energy) appears more sure, more confident, more determined.
5. There is a dramatic rise in the speaker’s ability to succinctly articulate ideas, feelings, and direction.
6. The agreed-upon intentions of the conversations were translated into action.
7. Both speaker and listener experience a “better relationship” due to the quality of the conversation.
8. The listener knows he/she has been used well.
9. Nothing more needs to be said.


This article originally appeared in Great Lakes Leadership Group’s “Leader’s Edge”. Reprinted with permission.

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