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Listening Your Way to Great Leadership

Blog 142 PictureSo when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.

– Jiddu Krishnamurti

As a leader, you are no doubt barraged by the latest management fads and cutting-edge techniques for achieving results. But did you know that you’re sitting on a mother lode of untapped human wisdom? To mine it all you need to do is make use of one of your natural-born powers: Listening.

The ability to listen is one of the most priceless tools in your leadership toolkit. By genuinely listening—paying attention, actively perceiving and receiving information, and hearing what’s said, and better yet, what’s unsaid—you can tap into untold wealth and wellbeing in your organization. As you cultivate this skill, you learn to identify the latent potentials in people and engage the best in your team. You find and nourish previously hidden seeds of creativity and innovation. And you better sense the deeper pulse of your organization, the market and the world at large. You become better able to create a field for healthier, sustained growth. Undoubtedly, listening is as important a talent as strategic planning, managing crises, making decisions, and other leadership prerogatives.

Genuine listening is a leveling act. Building on the valuable work of Co-Active Coaching author Laura Whitworth, at least four levels of listening are worth your consideration:

  1. Internal Listening – This kind of listening is autobiographical. While you hear the words of others, you’re primarily interested in what the content means to you personally. (“How is what they’re saying going to affect me?”) Level 1 has kicked in when your desire for information is strong—you want answers, explanations, rationales, details. Your purpose at this level is to meet your needs.
  1. Focused Listening – At Level 2, your target is the person speaking. Like a laser, you tune in not only to her words, but also her rhythm, pitch, emotion and body language, all of which help you better understand her overall message. (“What does she seem to be feeling?” “What seems to be motivating her?”) Already, a wealth of information is available here that you could not access through Level 1. At Level 2, you aren’t focused on yourself, your agenda, your thoughts. Nor are you thinking about what to say next. When it’s time to speak like a mirror you reflect back to the speaker what you understood so that she feels fully heard and valued.
  1. Global Listening – This refers to gestalt, or whole, listening. At this level you listen to the speaker, as well as attend to the surrounding environment. (“What else is going on in the room?”) You also listen for and notice the impact you’re having on others. In Level 3 listening, you bring to play not only your ears, but also your eyes, body, feelings, intuitions and receptive mind. You are open, softly focused, and sensitive to the slightest changes in the conversation, which may give subtle hints as to what to do next.
  1. Generative Listening – Level 4 listening is quite refined; it is listening as a creative act. At this level, you become a finely tuned receiver that picks up not only what is, but what wants to be. (“What is being born here?”) Through the power of deep listening you discover that something wholly different is elicited: a new idea (perhaps a radical product design), a higher-level understanding of an issue or crisis, or strategic questions and solutions that you hadn’t considered before. This wisdom emerges without you forcing it to; in fact, it comes to bear in part because willfulness and ego have temporarily taken a back seat. To operate at Level 4, you fully let go of preconceptions and biases, sit patiently in the “not knowing,” and allow the act of listening to birth something truly original and worthwhile.

Truly great leaders create inviting and fertile environments where healthy relationships are built, incredible work is accomplished, and organizations are a source of growth and rejuvenation. They inherently know what journalist Brenda Ueland underscores: “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. When we really listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being re-created.” Simply by committing to a deeper kind of listening, you can serve as a generative force in people’s lives and your organization.


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