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Listening is a Leader's Superpower

A pyramid with thinking and talking at the top and listening at the bottom as the foundation.

My job, fundamentally, is listening to what the organization is trying to say, and then making sure that it is forcefully articulated - Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline.

Listening is a core competency of effective leadership. Yet we fundamentally miss the purpose and underestimate the value of listening. Here's how:

The Data

In partnership with Roster, I evaluated 360 feedback data from a sample of over 250 executive leaders, all of whom are operating in high growth, VC/PE environments.

Each leader was measured on 70 leadership skills by a collection of peers, team members, and board members. The results yield a fascinating insight into the nature of listening.

For leaders with higher scores on "this person truly listens" (as it is phrased in the survey), the largest predicted changes in other questions are:

(1) This person consistently delivers the targeted results.

(2) This person effectively sets priorities

(3) This person keeps team members aligned

Listening is significantly more highly correlated to delivery, prioritization, and alignment than other questions you might expect, such as "this person is approachable" or "this person cultivates comfortable working relationships."

This data reveals a key insight into the nature and power of listening: The ultimate purpose of listening is not just to build healthy relationships or make others feel heard. The purpose of listening is to build great team environments that deliver results.

Defining Listening

Many people mistake passive listening for deep listening.

Passive listening: My frame of reference is what I already know and believe. While someone else is talking, I am not speaking. My mind considers personal objections and objectives. I compare what I hear to what I know and consider what to say next.

Deep listening: My frame of reference is what I might not know, or what the other person knows and believes. I willfully suspend judgment. I seek understanding. I ask questions to help others think more clearly.

I learned to listen by having only one objective: comprehension. I was only trying to understand what the person was trying to convey to me. I wasn’t listening to critique. I wasn’t listening to object. I wasn’t listening to convince.

-Former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano

Why Listening is Hard

Our brains have evolved in ways that make deep listening hard:

  • We need to quickly evaluate our environment for threats. Suspending judgment goes against this biological drive to survive. Our natural state of listening is: "where is the threat to my security?"

  • We need to simplify complexity, which means categorizing new information into existing models so that our autopilot responses can run with little effort. This makes it hard to be present and truly understand when novel information is being received.

  • We need to be socially accepted, so we are overly defensive of past decisions and skeptical of perspectives that seem to threaten us (even when they certainly do not). This makes it hard to allow for new ideas that threaten our sense of identity.

  • We can think ~4 times faster than others can talk. This is why we get bored, distracted, and rush to judgment. Listening is a practice of slowing down and keeping our thoughts with what is being spoken.

Listening properly takes courage, attention, and discipline. The same capacities that are required for learning new information and building physical strength. Listening is a skill that improves with practice and experience.

Why You Should Listen

Listening is hard, but why is it important? As mentioned above, it's not for the reason we think (because it makes other people feel good).

Listening helps in three ways:

(1) Deep listening brings us closer to the truth. Listening is a not a gift to others, it is a gift to ourselves. When we're not listening, we see a very narrow slice of what is happening. Deep listening is our only means of expanding our awareness and perspective so that we may make smarter, more informed decisions in the future. Without listening, we rely entirely on past information and experience. It's very difficult to grow without listening.

(2) Deep listening makes other people smarter. We tend to listen best to the people whom we believe have the best ideas. What we don't realize is that people have the best ideas when we listen to them well; the listening comes first. Think about a person with whom you feel most creative and intelligent, and consider the way in which they listen to you. When we rush to judgment, we make others less intelligent.

(3) Deep listening fosters commitment. This is another gift to yourself. The more you listen, the more you understand. The more you understand, the better you can advocate for your own positions. This is why the executives in the Roster data set who have higher listening scores also have higher scores on "aligning the team" and "effectively setting priorities". Listening is the foundation of team commitment, and you cannot listen when you are judging or convincing.

Practice makes perfect

Every day offers dozens of opportunities to practice your listening. Here is one simple way to build your listening habit:

  • Notice in a conversation when you are tempted to jump in with your opinion. Note how this sensation feels physically in your body. Before adding your opinion to the conversation, do one of (or both of!) two things:

  • First, ask a an open-ended question.

  • Second, paraphrase what you have been hearing. Ask for confirmation.


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