Listening and Leadership

"Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk." Doug Larson

As Executive Coaches we frequently find ourselves working with our clients on the art of Listening. Listening is the foundation of meaningful relationships, and meaningful relationships form the cornerstone of  business success.

In a typical business day, an Executive will spend 45% of their time listening, 30% talking, 16% reading and 9% writing.  Typically leadership development programmes will encompass modules on presentation skills, but much less frequently on listening skill, because listening is easy… or is it?

In theory listening is simple – it requires us to be present, withhold judgment, turn off our internal dialogue, and put down our gadgets… yet in reality it isn’t simple; our ability to listen is compromised by our own thoughts, assumptions and judgments.  We filter: we are influenced by the beliefs and values we hold; we are often time-poor and haven’t the patience to wait for the punch line – we just want the sound-bite.  The use of phones and laptops has become acceptable at meetings, the premium on being present is not as great as it used to be, every meeting has some form of record kept, so we can refer to the notes if we missed something.  This is sometimes called Internal listening: we are focused on our own thoughts, worries and priorities whilst pretending to be focused on what the other person is saying.

Forbes cited some research a couple of years ago which highlighted that humans listen at a 25% comprehension rate, which suggests a great deal of passivity in the listening process… and consequently missed opportunity. Even when we are focused on the other person, we often fail to recognise the body language and what is not being said.  Leadership isn’t all about having the right answer, it is as often about having the right question.  The whole case for diversity is about recognising the unique capabilities and aptitudes of those people who do not think like ourselves and being open to consider this alternative thinking in the decision-making process.   When we fail to listen to team members, we tend to limit their creativity and motivation, and reduce their sense of self-worth and engagement, which ultimately leads to sub-optimal business performance.   Employees are not simply tools and resources to enable a successful leader, they want to be recognised for who they are and what they represent to the team and organisation at large.  

Active listening requires time and patience to not just hear the words, but be alert to how they are being said, the energy, choice of language,  and that which is unspoken.  It opens us to new ways of looking at the world and those in it. It makes us far more approachable, and inspires more honest conversations and creates trust. 

An acronym to help active listening: RASA

Receive:  make eye contact, look interested, be curious, focus on understanding

Appreciate:  smile, be present, warm body language

Summarise:  “so what you are saying is…”

Ask:  Clarify