Listening Part I: It's Highly Underrated

As an executive coach, I am continually amazed at the havoc that poor listening ability has created for so many leaders. A recent review of goals and action plans created by my clients over the years reveals that “improving listening skills” is one of the most popular goals that come from the feedback provided by their managers, peers and employees. Poor listening effects almost every aspect of a leader’s ability to connect with people, not to mention the fact that when listening stops – so does learning, as Sarah experienced.

Sarah was on a path to leadership disaster. Looking at her track record, you wouldn’t know it. She was a driven mid-level executive in a large organization. Known by her senior management as someone who got results, the organization wanted to retain her for a larger role. Yet her 360 results in the areas of “team work” and “developing followership” were in the tank; she would need to improve her scores in those areas if she had any hope of future promotion.

I conducted interviews to dig deeper into the causes of her 360 problems.  Her peers and employees indicated that although Sarah was bright and driven, they didn’t feel listened to. Further questioning showed that she was distracted, rushed, and opinionated; she cut people off and displayed a tendency to have “the last word”.

Upon seeing the “poor listening” problem detailed in her interview report, Sarah was ready to make a change. We created an action plan to work on “developing better listening skills”.

It was a hard behavior to change. However, Sarah’s considerable drive to achieve kicked in to help her be successful. Later follow-up interviews showed Sarah was successful in improving her listening ability. Her staff and peers felt like they were being heard. Their interactions became more open with each other and with Sarah.

Through improved listening, Sarah was learning new things that were important to her future success as a leader. Her relationships inside and outside of work were improving.

The deceptively simple act of listening has become, for many of us, our roadblock to higher achievement. Listening well is something that we should be naturals at. After all, as the saying goes, we were born with two ears and one mouth, and started life listening long before we learned to talk.

However, a lifetime of striving to tell everyone we know about how smart we are, or about why our opinion counts have helped us to develop some exceptional non-listening habits. As a leader, it is essential that we exercise discernment of the mouth and allow our ears to hear what others have to say.

The act of listening is probably the most underrated leadership “skill”. I don’t recall seeing “listens well” on a list of leadership competencies, yet I’ve seen the inability to listen create real problems for leaders.

The leaders I know who have improved their ability to listen have enjoyed significant improvement in their capacity to inspire, impact, and influence their organizations and communities. Put “develop better listening skills” at the top of your list of personal development goals. It will make a big difference in your leadership and your life. 

Next, Listening Part II: What gets in the way?

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.

7 comments on “Listening Part I: It's Highly Underrated

  1. Great story and wonderful reminder. I am embarrased to say how many times lately it seems I am going back to family, friends and coworker asking for more details because “I wasn’t listening well” when we were talking. What was I doing? Anticipating what they were going to say, typing while on the phone, creating my grocery list, fretting because I didn’t have a post in the cue . . .in those distracted cases, it would have been better to let the phone ring or delay the conversation. And I keep learning!

  2. I know its not always true, but I feel the poor listening is highly corrolated to lack of respect for those talking. We just can’t beleive others are worth listneing to.

    Real leadership demands a true respect for yourself, and others. With mutual respect, listening becomes a joy that you look forward to.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with your emphasis on listening. And I’m impressed with your capacity to help a leader develop her capacity to list. Sincere listening requires some effort and attention which are truly assisted by a genuine interest in the other person.
    Transferring that capacity from a leader to members of a workgroup, that’s another step.
    All the best

  4. Listening is a truly powerful skill, and since so many are so poor at it, a true way a leader can stand out if they develop in that area. One of the articles I read recently said studies were showing that the higher up in an org. someone is, the less they are able to “hear” what others say. Scary thought.
    Thanks for sharing your insights. Laura 🙂

  5. I still remember my 1st 360 when I was told I didn’t listen… and a few other home truths as well… ouch! The great thing is that with the feedback we can improve.

    I think the skills of effective questioning and summarizing really help with “active” listening. In reality it does however take great effort to retrain ourselves and actually change what for many is a well ingrained behavior that has become a basic personality trait. For leaders it is of course a must do.

    Great article.

  6. Lisa – keep learning and listening! Thanks for telling your story.

    Val – it appears that you stole my thunder from part II. Sigh. Thanks for stopping over and adding your comments.

    Michael – the good news is that when a leader models good listening, there is a chance that others on the team may begin to listen better too! Thanks for your kind comments.

    Laura, wish I could get my hands on those studies. Its not a surprise. I would say that the higher up in the organization, the more important it becomes for a leader to listen well.

    Ric – The good news is that effort, though large, has corresponding large payoffs for a leader.

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