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Leading by Listening

Alan Andersen

There is a huge difference between hearing and listening.

At this moment I’m writing in my downtown Seattle office and I am hearing endless activity out on the street. I’m not listening to it, and I won’t unless something unusual captures my attention. The same thing happens when people speak to us. Our ears hear the words, but our brains and our heart decide whether or not we are going to listen and how we are going to listen.

When we listen to others, we establish trust. When we listen to ourselves, we lead more mindful lives. Listening is an essential key to effective leadership.

Leadership Skill: Lead by listening

True listening is active.

There are three levels of listening:

*Level 1: As I listen to you, I am only thinking about how I can relate to what you say to me.

“I just got back from Hawaii.”

“We were in Hawaii last spring. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Yes, we loved the snorkeling.”

“I loved the snorkeling, but my wife doesn’t swim well and was afraid. We really enjoyed going up in a sail plane.”

*Level 2: As I listen to you, I am laser focused on you.

“I just got back from Hawaii.”

“How was it?’

“Beautiful. We loved the snorkeling. We can’t wait to go back.”

“What did you see while you were snorkeling?”

Level 3: As I listen to you, I notice everything. What is said, what I see, what I sense.

“I just got back from Hawaii.”

He’s smiling. He’s carrying a bag of macadamia nuts. His skin is bright red.

“Sunscreen issues?”


“The nuts from there taste like they’ve come directly from God.”

“Amen. And we loved touring the plantations.”

When you listen from Level 1, preparing your reaction (or rebuttal) while the other person is talking, he knows he is not being heard. It is as if he is speaking only for your benefit or amusement. You are indicating that you have no actual interest in what he wants to tell you, and that you have no actual interest in him.

When you listen from Level 2 or 3, you are clearly indicating that you care about what he has to say and about him personally. When he knows that you genuinely care about him, he is more apt to be open to what you have to say.

How are you doing, 0 – 10, leading by listening?

My listening depends on my agenda. When I am coaching, my agenda is joining with the client to create their most satisfying, fulfilling, and successful life. I am acutely aware that the client’s trust in me is the key to making that happen. So I listen from a Level 2 or 3.

But how do I listen to my colleagues, my friends, my family, myself? Do I ask questions from a place of genuine interest? Or am I only interested in how I am impacted by what they are saying? Do I care about what experiences and thoughts are behind their opinions, or do I only care about expressing my own?

What if our agenda for all of our relationships was that we grow our trust in one another? How would we listen then?

We would listen with laser focus. We would listen to what we see, and what is said and not said. Very few of us have relationships that listen to us in that way. Listening is a gift you can give. It nourishes trust that makes us all safe. Imagine such a world.

- Mary Beth King

This article previously appeared at True Life Coaching, a subsidiary of Shandel Group, and Blue City Monthly.

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