Lead by Listening

Listening is a huge part of leadership. In fact, many leaders have participated in a class or workshop on this very topic. But despite learning different tools and techniques to help us listen more, a lot of us could stand to be more present, more mindful, and more engaged in conversations. That is what we need to do to uplevel our listening and become better leaders.

In my training as an executive coach, we were taught to listen for over 100 different elements in any given conversation. Don’t worry, we’re not going to discuss all of them but I do want to draw your attention to several points so you can begin to consider how you are listening to yourself and others.

  1. Listen to what’s being said. This may seem quite obvious, but it can be a real challenge. When you’re busy, multitasking, or otherwise not fully present with the person you’re talking to, you very easily risk missing what they’re actually saying.  Take time to bring your full presence to the person and conversation.
  2. Listen to what’s not being said. People frequently communicate what they feel they are able to communicate. They might tell us what they think we can handle or want to hear and leave out important information.
    Here’s a simple example. Someone may look out the window, see the sun shining, and say, “The weather is warm.” It seems straightforward enough, no cause for questions or debate. But what they didn’t say is, “It will be cold tomorrow based on the weather report.” And since they didn’t bring up the cold, the person they’re speaking to is probably only focusing on warmth. You might think this is an insignificant distinction, but when you’re leading people, what’s not being said can be as important as what is explicitly articulated. It affects your ability to accurately understand the situation.
  3. Listen for underlying questions or concerns. The person talking to you might have something else going on that will affect their perspective or performance. They may not even be aware of it. But if you listen closely for those reservations or uncertainties lurking beneath the surface, if you ask for clarifications, if you’re able to do the necessary problem solving, fact-finding, or redirecting, it can make a big difference in how effective you are as a leader.

I recently had a colleague approach me and say, “I’m hoping to get that [document, list, information, etc.] to you on Thursday. I’m really busy, but I’m going to try.” We’ve all heard that one before, right? And although she was indicating that Thursday was the day, what I really heard was her underlying uncertainty. I heard that despite all her efforts and what she was telling me, I was not getting the level of commitment that I needed. So instead of waiting around until Thursday to see what would happen, I used it as an opportunity to have an honest discussion and achieve more concrete results.

I called my colleague and said, “We established the Thursday deadline based on what you initially shared with me, but it seems like it is no longer feasible. It sounds like you have a lot going on, and I understand that. Would Friday be better for you?” The truth was, I didn’t really need the material by Thursday and was comfortable waiting (but if I wasn’t I would have asked a different question). In that moment, she breathed a sigh of relief and gratefully accepted my suggestion, since she had another big deadline to meet. I appreciated her honesty and she appreciated my flexibility.  

Often as leaders, we want what we want when we want it. So if we have our mind set on a certain deadline, as in this example, we may hear that we’ll be getting it even if what’s not being said or what’s underneath is telling us the opposite. If we learn to uplevel our listening—for what’s being said, what’s not being said, and for underlying issues—we will be much better leaders. Doing so builds honest, effective communication and will create excellent returns, both right now and in the future - an excellent way to lead by listening.

Weekly Uplevel Practice

In order to begin upleveling your listening, I’d like to invite you to do two things:

  1. Ask yourself, “Am I really listening?” Even if you think, “Of course! I am always giving my full attention,” the reality is that no one is able to give 100%. The more we ask ourselves this question, the more we consciously refocus our energy and attention on being fully present with the person we’re talking to. Try it out with your colleagues, your team, your partner, and your friends.
  2. Practice the three suggestions above. In your conversations with others, listen for what’s being said, what’s not being said, and what questions or concerns may be lurking beneath the surface. Use your insights to ask follow-up questions and problem solve.

Then see how upleveling your listening has affected your communication, productivity, and leadership!