Listening IS Action


Not to drop a name, but in a conversation with the wonderful Tom Peters on Twitter (@tom_peters), I wrote something about how the orientation to action in our organizations often clashes with a leader’s ability to really listen. His response helped me to realize that I’d said something that was actually worth writing about. So this post is written with gratitude to a giant in the leadership world, Mr. Tom Peters.

I sometimes imagine that if leaders changed nothing else about their behavior – except to listen well – a lot of workplace issues would go away (a sweeping statement, I know, but listening is really powerful – for the listener as well as the person who feels heard). People who feel listened to actually release endorphins (those “happy chemicals” that your body naturally produces). Imagine an entire happy workforce just because the leader really listens!

Yet this simple-to-understand-behavior is one of the hardest things to do. And one of the hardest places to do it is in our workplaces.

Why? Because listening isn’t considered something that gets results. Our workplaces (understandably) are geared toward taking action to achieve results.

So we’re constantly in motion, taking action because it’s what we (think) we get paid to do. Our days are filled with meetings, phone calls, email, fixing things. We talk TO and AT others and think we’ve accomplished something.

We feel guilty when that employee stops us in the hall and asks for some of our time. The guilt comes from the clash between standing still to listen with our need to feel like we’re moving to achieve the results we’re committed to. We say, “yes”, that we’re willing to listen for a few minutes. All the while, we’re thinking about what we need to get done (that isn’t really listening, by the way).

Put yourself in that employee’s shoes. They’ve asked for you to listen. You’ve committed to it, but what are they observing in your body language as you are anxious to get back into action? Are you facing them, maintaining eye contact? Can you focus on what they are saying?

The next time you’re asked for some of your time to listen…..STOP. Take a deep breath. Turn toward the person next to you. Turn off the chatter in your brain. And listen. Because listening is action.

Isn’t it possible to listen and get results?


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

12 comments on “Listening IS Action

  1. I call it being in the room and present. Your post is absolutely spot on. I think if we spent a little more time slowing down, listening and feeling the situation, we’d see the results. The future is all about relationships and you can’t build a relationship whilst rushing on through.

    As people replace products as the competitive advantage, this particular behaviour is the one we are going to have to take time out to learn and practice. Thanks for a great post.

  2. And imagine if those of us with children took this even further and actually did the same in our homes with our kids. We would then be preparing the next generation of leaders to know how to truly hear and be heard. Powerful.

  3. And, Chrysula, imagine if those of us with spouses actually did the same thing with them. How many relationships would be saved?

    Listening can be learned. I’m testimony to that. I originated as one of those people always trying to jump into the conversation because I just knew I had the next best thing to say. I don’t know exactly when I realized that I was isolating myself by doing that but thankfully I did. I started making a mindful effort to listen and learn about the people I came in contact with. That one strategy has done more to help me build the relationships that make my life meaningful than any other thing.

    Thanks for the post MJ.

  4. I would say it is not possible to get results without listening… be it listening to other team members, to obesrvations and perspectives of wiser people and to your own staff teams who have a finger on the pulse of what is truly going on.

    Listening is definitely what makes people feel valued but it is also what opens new solutions and possibilities. In my opinion listening and thinking are interconnected too so a person who can’t listen is not likely to make the best decisions and get results.

    What makes me smile though is that the world has come to a place where leadership coaches have to emphasise basic human skills that we have lost in our quest for being supersucessful and supposedly making every minute count…

    Maybe some business executives should spend a few weeks in foreign countries where they don’t know the language and haven’t got internet or blackberries – being thrown into situations where they have to make sense of things by listening and understanding rather than by rushing to get things done.. now wouldn’t that be fun 🙂

  5. Ann, I agree. But why do we have to learn it? We were born to listen. I think it’s sad that we’ve forgotten how.

    Chrysula, what a wonderful pledge that would be! I think the reasons for parents not listening to their kids are not that different that leaders who don’t listen to their followers.

    Paul, what a powerful testimonial. I did notice, when we met, that you are a very good listener.

    Redina, your comments made me wonder if the “not listening” phenomenon has surfaced since the modern workplace came into being. Or maybe it’s just become worse? I like your idea about spending time in foreign country. Our family actually did that several years ago in Korea. It was a profound and humbling experience of learning to be present and patient.

  6. Excellent post. I agree many don’t feel listening is doing. Such a shame because we tend to end up over/under doing as a result of thin information.

    There is another growing trend, in my opinion. When I think of the managers I had in the past who weren’t good listeners, it seemed their egos were partly to blame. We’ve become so focused on who gets credit and who may be to blame for this or that, the act of listening may make a leader feel vulnerable. What if listening to a co-worker or subordinate reveals ideas or problems the leader hadn’t realized on his own? It should be a good thing to uncover this information. Team work at its best. I suspect it often results in feelings, or charges, of inadequacy. There seems to be an expectation leaders be all knowing. We want to be heard by our leaders and yet we as a society tend judge those who don’t have divine knowledge. I don’t see how we can have it both ways. If leaders will be viewed as lacking for needing to consider information from others, for not being the one with the ideas all of the time or the ability to see all problems, we are grooming them to tune others out and go it alone.

  7. Lisa, you’ve very eloquently described the phenomenon of the expectations of followers. Followers have a role to play in a leader’s success (or demise), too! Thanks for your great insights.

  8. Mary Jo, it helps me that you summed up my response that way. If you don’t mind, I might build from your words on the follower playing a role in the success of a leader and apply it to job seekers. One of the hardest tasks I have in working with job seekers is getting them to understand how their words, attitudes and actions in the interview are often weighed by the manager to determine if that person is going to be an asset to his career/goals or thorn in his side. Job seekers are told how to show they are a good leader, but we really don’t spend enough time talking about demonstrating strengths as a follower. It’s almost as if being a follower is now taboo. Playing up one’s ability to constructively and positively support someone else driving the ship suggests a lack of ambition to be a leader oneself.

    I’ve said it before, you give good brain food. I appreciate the things your posts lead me to think about I may not have otherwise.

  9. Lisa, what a great addition to your earlier comments! I’m thinking about your statement that being a follower is now taboo. Thanks for your kind words, and I always appreciate your comments here.

  10. Mary Jo,

    Thanks for a very good post on something as basic as listening. We have all been given two ears and one mouth and I try to use them in the correct proportion. It takes a humble spirit to not jump in and finish someone’s sentence for them. It takes a confident person to not worry that someone else in the conversation may speak first and share the idea you had as their own. Yet, and I have a way to go, I would rather have those two qualities than be known as one with a powerful ego, as Lisa alluded to in her comments.

  11. Bill, you’ve added a comment that is valuable here. The fact that some leaders may fear that someone else may speak first and share the idea you has as their own. Powerful statement, and certainly a fear that many may have. Thanks.

Comments are closed.