Listen: Leadership Is a Contact Sport

In her book My Life in Leadership, Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts, CEO of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, and one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever met, wrote one of the best descriptions of listening and leadership I’ve ever read:

“Listening is an art. When people are speaking, they require our undivided attention. We focus on them; we listen very carefully. We listen to the spoken words and the unspoken messages. This means looking directly at the person, eyes connected; we forget we have a watch, just focusing for that moment on that person. It’s called respect, it’s called appreciation – and it’s called leadership.”

Let’s explore this art of listening a bit further. Did you know that 80 percent of our success in learning from other people is based on how well we listen? In other words, our success or failure is determined before we do anything. What escapes most people is they think listening is passive. They think they are supposed to just sit there and “hear someone out.” If you re-read Frances’ description, you’ll notice there is nothing passive about it. It is active and powerful. Good listeners know this. They regard listening as a highly active process.

So what do good (active) listeners do? In essence they do three things: They think before they speak; they listen with respect; and they are always gauging their response by asking themselves, “Is it [responding] worth it?”

1) Think before you speak: What do most of us do when we’re upset? We talk. When we’re confused, surprised, shocked? Talk. However, listening is a two-part process. During one part, we listen. During the other, we speak. What we say is proof of how well we’ve listened.

2) Listen with respect: To learn from people you have to listen to them with respect. This means engaging the speaker with your eye contact and body language, showing that you are interested in what they are saying, so that you can keep learning from what they are saying.

3) Ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”: Listening also requires answering this difficult question before you speak. A good way to make sense of this question is to realize that you are in effect taking the age-old question of self-interest, “What’s in it for me?” one step further and asking, “What’s in it for her?”

You’ve heard me say it many times over, this is pretty simple stuff, but it’s not easy. If you try listening actively and with respect you’ll be amazed at how much better things get. So many of our interpersonal problems at work stem from not listening and not thinking before we speak. You say something – I get mad. I lash out, and within seconds we have a crisis of miscommunication on our hands that can stop teams, departments, and organizations from functioning well.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the weather or the latest techie gadget, the content is totally irrelevant. What matters is how easily we can slip into small behavioral patterns that create friction in the workplace—and how just as easily we can assume behavioral patterns that don’t create friction. Really, it’s up to us. We can choose to practice simple disciplines like thinking before speaking, listening with respect, and asking “Is it worth it?” at work. It’s not that difficult, we just need to do it.

For those of you who want to change for the better in this area, try to do the following techniques during your next interpersonal encounter. Keep practicing. You will reap amazing benefits!

• Listen.
• Don’t interrupt.
• Don’t finish the other person’s sentences.
• Don’t say, “I knew that.”
• Don’t even agree with the other person. Even if he praises you, just say, “Thank you!”
• Don’t use the words, “no,” “but,” and “however.”
• Don’t be distracted. Don’t let your eyes or attention wander elsewhere while the other person is talking.
• Maintain your end of the dialogue by asking intelligent questions that a) show you’re paying attention, b) move the conversation forward, and c) require the other person to talk (while you listen).
• Eliminate any striving to impress the other person with how smart or funny you are. Your only aim is to let the other person feel that he or she is accomplishing that.

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith was selected as one of the 10 Most Influential Management Thinkers in the World by Thinkers50 in both 2011 and 2013. He was also selected as the World’s Most Influential Leadership Thinker in 2011. Marshall was the highest rated executive coach on the Thinkers50 List in both 2011 and 2013. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There was listed as a top ten business bestseller for 2013 by INC Magazine / 800 CEO Read (for the seventh consecutive year). Marshall’s exciting new research on engagement will be published in his upcoming book Triggers (Crown, 2015).

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