Finding and Fighting Listening's Greatest Enemy


In recent weeks we’ve been exploring the impact of how well we listen on our effectiveness as leaders. Week one found us looking at the relationship between listening and trust. Week two had us exploring a simple listening practice that creates a positive and disproportionate reward for us as leaders. In our third and final week, we address the highest hurdles to listening well.

Walt Kelly was an animator and story teller. His career included work on Disney favorites such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Fantasia. In 1948 Kelly’s creation “Pogo the possum" began running in the New York Star, a newspaper that existed for less than a year. Despite the Star’s failure, Pogo lived on and was picked up in syndication. Pogo was published in comic books and newspapers for more than two decades. Walt Kelly passed away in 1973. A year prior to his death, Simon and Schuster published a comic book featuring Pogo and the quote that became Pogo's greatest legacy. The cover showed Pogo standing in front of a mirror with a look of surprise and fear on his face. The title over his head read, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Too Close For Comfort

Walt Kelly and Pogo were on to something profound that applies to many aspects of leadership including listening. The greatest challenges to being a good listener live within us. More than any meeting-filled schedule or looming project deadline, our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are the biggest obstacles to our ability to master the “Art of Listening.”

Do you hold any of the perspectives that keep leaders from listening well? To determine that, let’s look at a few quotes and see if they sound at all familiar.

> “I know what that person is going to say, so what’s the point of having a conversation?” > “They don’t get it. They don’t see the big picture. So getting into a conversation with them is really just a waste of everyone’s time.” > “Will this conversation help me get done what I have on my plate today? If not, l don’t have time for it.”

These thoughts speak to a self-focus and self-interest that undermine our ability to hear those we lead. Even though having such thoughts is logical given the experiences and responsibilities most leaders have, they still represent beliefs that keep us from fully valuing our followers. These beliefs erode our ability to listen well even when they exist in small amounts within us.

From Thought to Action

The good news is that when the challenges of leadership live within us, we have ready access to address them. Let’s do that by looking at three practices that enable us to listen well despite our inner-temptations to do otherwise.

Interested vs. Interesting

A mature consulting friend of mine, Sam Reid, has hypothesized that 60%-70% of what we say to others is about making us feel good about ourselves. Consistently promoting ideas we’ve come up with or subtly displaying how smart we are indicates that we might be more focused on being interesting toothers rather than being interested in others. When this happens, our ability to listen well craters.

What if Sam is merely 1/2 right? What if the number was just 30%? And what if we took that 30% of our normal talking time and converted it into questions and listening. What if we said to ourselves, Self, my job right now it be interested in this person and her ideas, not to present my ideas or show her how smart I am. Engage accordingly.

If you need a little motivation on this one, here’s something to consider: When you think about it, constantly presenting your ideas to others is rather boring. You already know your ideas. You’ve had them in your mind for weeks now, maybe even months or years. Shifting your focus to understanding the nitty gritty of others’ ideas, on the other hand, is interesting. It's something new. Digging in to hear the logic and experiences behind others' opinions—even if we disagree with that opinion—makes sense if expanding your understanding of the world is a priority. (People who know me are going to get a real kick out of this idea. I am forever presenting my ideas to others. I need to take this medicine as much as anyone else reading this blog.)

Following Up

Many of us are tempted to formulate responses to others before they’ve finished talking. We can’t possibly listen well, regardless of what our motives might be, if we are creating our responses before others finish speaking. One method for dealing with this tendency is to catch ourselves in the act of prematurely forming a response and let that be the trigger that requires us to ask a follow-up question rather than share a response or rebuttal. The inner monologue with yourself might look something like this…

[While the other person — Sally — is still talking] There are three things Sally hasn’t considered. When she finishes, I’ll start with issue #1, timing. Her thoughts about the timing of this are way off. Then I’ll bring up the already bulging budget. [pause] Wait, I’m not actually listening to Sally anymore. Ok, now I have to ask a follow up question. Start listening again so I can ask an appropriate follow up question.

Find the Nugget

Another method for managing our heads and hearts to listen well is a commitment to “Find the Nugget.” That means that no matter how much we disagree with what someone else might be saying, we decide to find at least a nugget of something valuable in it. If we commit ourselves to listening for the positive nuggets of what a follower or opponent might be saying, we force ourselves to listen more closely and openly than we otherwise would. In truth, great ideas are hardly ever birthed in their final form. Almost every idea that gets implemented goes through a refining process before reaching completion. Remembering this can motivate us to “Find the Nugget.”

An Incredibly Valuable Byproduct

Trust is a natural byproduct for leaders who listen well. But it is just that, a byproduct. It can’t be pursued directly. Leaders who listen merely to get their followers to trust them will not reach the highest levels of trust. Why? Because such leaders aren’t actually valuing others; they simply want to look like they are. Followers feel the shallowness of that over time. Conversely, leaders who genuinely listen to their followers earn far greater trust from their followers than those who feign listening.

When we genuinely listen to others we are humbling ourselves. In such moments we actually become something better than we were. We are changed. We become more trustworthy leaders because our motives and focus are on others rather than ourselves. Our followers, as with all people, naturally have greater trust for those who are less selfish and less self-focused.

Listening well is characterized by being fully present and deeply curious. When you think about what it takes to listen well, it seems that the “Art of Listening” really isn’t an art at all. It’s a commitment—a commitment, that when exercised, makes us more worthy of the trust of those we lead.

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Share Your Thoughts: What have you done in the past to keep your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions from getting in the way of listening well to others? Tell us about it.  We'd love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

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