Listening is by far the most important skill for a leader to hone. Have you ever seen a leader who seems unflappable and remains calm in even the most chaotic circumstances? Watch that person closely and you will see the secret to this cool demeanor—focused listening. As a leader, you need to pay attention to the words and actions of others while suspending judgment long enough to allow your intellect to catch up with your instincts. Why? If you speak too soon, you shut off creative impulse. You shut off collaboration. By speaking too soon, you force ideas on your team, even if that is not your intention. When you keep silent long enough to understand fully—not just hear—what someone is saying or doing, you create space for that person to invent, aspire, and contribute. By creating that space, you afford your team a sense of ownership, and you make room for the possibility that someone on your team has the best idea at this moment. By listening carefully, you sharpen all your senses and promote composure among those around you.
There are many ways to listen; the most obvious is with your ears. However the act of listening is far more nuanced than just hearing words. To do it effectively you must pay careful attention to sounds and much more. The pace, breath, tone, and inflection of the voice all combine to provide the implied meaning, intentions, state-of-mind, and needs of the speaker. Reactions of your fellow listeners can also teach much. When you listen attentively, you shelve your own thoughts, and for a moment there is no judgment, no discrimination, no understanding. Only listening. When you listen deliberately, your mind—which is like a hyperactive dog pulling on a leash—soon starts barking with ideas, assumptions, interpretations, and decisions. If you can hold that dog off for a bit, you can listen with clarity, which leads to hidden insights. Insights that are very useful to a leader.
Listening is not for ears alone. When you practice listening, you sharpen your other senses—sight, smell, taste, and touch. When you listen carefully with your ears, you can sense tone and inflection, cadence and emphasis—all of which combine to provide insight into the meaning of the words spoken. When you apply that same level of attention with your sight, you might notice a flicker in the corner of an eye, a twitch in the corner of a mouth, a shift in stance—all of which combine to provide insights into meaning both overt and covert. You develop a perception skill that few even know exists, let alone master.
Our wonderful human brain can simultaneously process observations made with all our senses. Listening as a practice sharpens that awareness automatically and leads to clearer perception of what is happening with the people on your team and in their environment. This clearer perception leads to competitive advantage because you can identify critical cues about intentions and motivations.
Are You Listening?
Most schools don’t teach listening. Neither do most parents. The closest we get to teaching children to listen is concentration games such as I Spy, Where’s Waldo? and Memory Match Cards, which emphasize keen observation but not listening per se. Early in childhood, by the third grade in the communities I have seen firsthand, we move our kids’ efforts toward serious academic pursuits, which usually involve more than a decade of frenetic preparation for scarce slots among top universities. As a result, we produce well-educated men and women with a singular need to demonstrate that they are the smartest person in the room, who vie to answer first, and who are not very practiced at listening. How many times have you come across this person in your career? Are you one of them?
Some kids growing up in this education system react to competition by becoming a class clown in an attempt to divert academic scrutiny or out of scorn for it. No listening there. Those who cannot compete in the “speed-answer-game” or the corollary “snarky-comment-game” often give up. For them, daydreaming or socializing becomes a deeply ingrained habit. Listening loses out here, too. Other kids end up pursuing non-intellectual competition, usually focused on running or retaining possession of a fast-moving ball. These more athletic youngsters might learn to listen to a coach, but if you have ever coached kids, you know they aren’t usually listening; they just get skilled at looking as if they are.
In other words, education, development, and training in every country on earth are invested in sharpening competitive skills. This is indeed necessary for leadership, but it is not sufficient. I have spent much of my life perfecting a competitive instinct. I love competition, thrive on it, and believe it is the fuel that makes a democracy and capitalism possible. What I find disappointing is that in the midst of all the competitive juices flowing in academic, athletic, and professional endeavors, we neglect to develop the most important skill we will ever have—careful listening. It is the doorway to understanding our world and our place in it, and is the source of every great leader’s strength.
If this doesn’t make sense, consider the fact that a professional baseball coach doesn’t win by hitting a home run. A baseball coach wins by getting the team to function well and consistently over the course of nearly one hundred ninety games each season. He assembles a team that has the potential to win. There are key athletes on the team that can hit home runs when needed most. There are those who pitch well at the beginning or at the end of a game. There are others who field the ball well together and make brilliant defensive plays. To guide a team to victory, the baseball coach must have a very clear awareness of the abilities, temperament, and condition of each member of his roster, and an awareness of each of these critical areas is best sharpened by practicing clear and concentrated listening every day on and off the field. With a competitive drive, the coach will make the effort to lead the team well. And, if he listens well and pays attention with all his senses, the coach can consistently lead them to win.
Listen and Learn
Listening is a skill that, like any other, is mastered only through practice. And because listening isn’t part of the standard primary or secondary curriculum, we are all sorely in need of practice. Our minds are very busy. You and I and every person trying to lead an organization has a mind that acts like a dog sniffing, chasing, and barking at shadows and leaves rustling in the breeze. Learning to listen meticulously is a lot like training a dog. Want to learn how? Let’s practice.
Breathe. Find a quiet place. Sit still and comfortably with a reasonably straight but relaxed spine. Close your eyes. Bring all your awareness to your breath as you inhale and exhale as fully and deeply as you can. Allow your mind and body to relax and settle a bit as you use the breath to bring yourself into the present moment.
Observe. Open your eyes and look down at what is in front of you. With your eyes open, you are less likely to start daydreaming. For this practice to be effective, be sure to stay awake and present. What do you hear? Can you hear traffic? Birds chirping? People talking nearby? Your heartbeat? The blood rushing in your ears? A clock ticking? Your breath? Let your mind roam and listen to everything around you, all while your eyes are open.
Concentrate. With your eyes still open, concentrate on your slow, deep breaths in silence. Listen to each breath carefully as it enters your nostrils, passes through your trachea, fills your lungs, and then reverses. Continue to listen to the inhales, exhales, and subtle spaces in between. These sounds and the sounds of all the activity around you can each be perceived individually and collectively in each breath. Every time your mind wanders away from your breath, just smile, take an extra deep breath, and start again. You are concentrating on one point amidst all the activity around you. Just breathe. You are training your mind to sit still instead of roam.
Awareness. You may get bored listening to your breath. You might become frustrated that you end up in a daydream after each few breaths, even though your eyes are open. You might feel antsy. You might realize you are hungry. No matter what you experience, whenever you notice that you have strayed from your breath, you are having a spark of awareness—you just woke up. Use that awareness and just come back to studying each breath while you observe all the other sounds around you and in you. Practice patience with yourself. Practice calm control. Practice staying present. You are gently training your concentration to come back on command.
Practice. Do this for at least five minutes every morning or evening, whenever you are likely to consistently set time aside. If you enjoy this practice, do it for ten or fifteen minutes every day or try it for five minutes three times a day. After two weeks, apply your honed, concentrated listening to someone speaking to you. If you notice that your mind wanders, becomes bored, or starts coming up with ideas while that person is speaking, use that same spark of awareness to return to the speaker. Come back to their voice, just like you came back to studying breaths. With practice, you will notice that you aren’t drifting as much, and you will start to see, hear, and feel cues you may never have noticed before.
Leadership is a relationship, and listening is essential to building successful relationships. When people are heard fully and completely, without interruption and without debate until they have finished their point, they are more likely to trust you. They are far more likely to be receptive to whatever ideas you would like them to consider—whether it is a request you are making of them or an opinion you would like to share with them.
Have you ever seen a leader checking email messages on a laptop, BlackBerry, or iPhone during a meeting? Are you one of those leaders? Not only is this enormously disrespectful, it is self-defeating. By not listening and observing, you miss the most valuable information you need to lead, and you simultaneously devalue the speaker and the others in the room. Pay attention to the people in the room or cancel the meeting. Listening isn’t just about getting information you need; the act of listening is the primary tool you have to inspire and motivate others.
It doesn’t take much effort to become a more effective listener. Consistent practice is essential. If you start now, in a few weeks you will already be a more skilled listener than the majority of people on the planet. The average adult attention span has been conditioned by years of television and Web browsing to last only about twenty seconds.9 So if you can focus your attention for five minutes, then you will be operating fifteen times higher than the average. Not a bad start. Even more valuable, by practicing calm listening every day, your demeanor begins to adjust. You begin to be more deliberate, even in the midst of noise and chaos. You will appear unflappable, which is always inspiring. Your natural levels of passion and enthusiasm will not be dampened—they will be more focused.
People will start to take notice and you will too. What are you waiting for? Try it right now. We are at the end of this post. It is a good time to take five minutes to practice listening. And always remember the ancient wisdom of Epictetus: We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
- Be still and silent.
- Relax your mind and observe.
- Use your breath to focus your attention.
- Let go of expectations and judgments.
- Stay present and focused on your breath.
- Each time you drift from observing your breath, gently guide yourself back to it.
- Do this, in silence, five minutes every day.
- Apply this deliberate awareness to all situations.