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Listening Leadership


Exquisite Listening is at the heart of facilitating high performance in others. Listening is a key quality of leaders who mark themselves apart from managers who may dominate by directing.

When we listen well, we learn more about a person, about both their competences (practical and thinking styles) and about their motivations and de-motivations. We also learn how to influence them more effectively. Our influencing can then both inspire them to achieve at new levels but also to achieve with wellbeing, even when the demands we make, are over sustained periods.

A number of factors get in the way – awareness of these factors is a good place to start, so that strengths can be acknowledged and so gaps can be self-managed. The pathway to producing greater personal performance and satisfaction is then on track.

What gets in the way?

Busy heads make it impossible to listen well. When we are guessing what is about to be said, wondering about what clever question to ask, or we are triggered into our own reminiscences, we are not listening. Imagine you are listening to a radio in a car. Someone steps out into the road just ahead of the car. For a while, the radio does not exist. Listening is partial – our brains are not wired for multitask listening.
Typical internal barriers to listening include:

• Judging
• Comparing
• Interpreting
• Anticipating
• Rehearsing.

To be a better listener, one first needs to revalue the art of, and practice of listening and also, to understand the benefits of listening well. Without a promising outcome, no sustainable effort will be made to change what we have done so far. Let’s look at the outcomes for enticing us to change-up.

Why exquisite listening benefits performance

Many managers assume that thinking intelligently is the best way to participate in conversations at work. However, those that listen badly will not build the necessary rapport – their wisdom is then minimally impactful. Their wisdom may even be ignored or circumnavigated on purpose. That is because most people know, instinctively, when a manager is faking it, even if they cannot quantify the actual evidence – the result is distrust. The effects of distrust include lower performance and an unwillingness to work harder for that manager.

How do you feel when you are listened to very well? When we list our own positive associations with being properly heard, it becomes easy to imagine that others may also experience these positive associations too. People say things like:

• feel valued
• listened to
• worthy and
• feel impactful.

Used in conjunction with good questioning, exquisite listening helps the people who work with us to develop and learn, so they can perform better. They do so sustainably. That is, achieving performance AND wellbeing.
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Rethinking the role of manager

Another common issue why managers may not listen well is because they feel they have to be clever; or that their first duty is to be responsible for everything and so they give solutions. These beliefs prevent proper listening and limit others from developing their psychological competences and performance at work. Further, these common ‘manager’ traits get in the way of their staff operating independently from their manager; they are not self-starting or creating new solutions. This is all bad for the organization and means that the manager will be required to spend more time managing people than is necessary.

It may be better then to rethink the role of manager. What are you really trying to develop in your people? Are you too task-focussed, neglecting the support required to develop their performance (and independence from you)? Are you over- or under-managing people? What would be the obvious effects of these two styles of miss-managing? Which people may be over- or under-managed? Have you asked all of them in 1-2-1s? Do you feel positive about the 1-2-1? Do you have them often enough?

These questions and others may help decide changes that will help mark you out as a leader of people, rather than just a manager (with the same skills you had last month and the month before that).

Revaluing Listening

The second string to change is re-valuing listening to others. This will change thinking and behavior radically [1]. Values are instruments of change, thus a value about listening well together with a belief about the benefits, changes thinking and behaviour. In practice, we repeat and acknowledge our new value. As we focus on what is being expressed by others (both in words: intonation, pitch, stress and associated body language), the internal processing magically disappears. The mechanism here is like a pedestrian walking into the roadway on front of you; focus on one thing well, and the ‘noise’ disappears

Self-training for improving listening skills

A practical enhancement is Reflective Language [2]. When you really listen well, you become better at reflecting a person’s actual words and or phrases. They ‘feel’ listened to and valued. You can then use same words/phrases as a prelude to your response – a statement, question or both. This skill of using some of the same language (you just heard) has a name in management and that is ‘Reflective Language’. This skill is used in the training of, and practice of, the best coaches & leaders.

There are some people who, through ignorance, still assert that Reflecting Language must be annoying. But we assert from actual experience, that the manipulative or graceless copying of language may indeed be annoying but, that graceful use of the person’s own words is always accepted and importantly, usually not intellectually rebelled against!

Reflective Language also reduces the possibility of stimulating doubts about covert objectives or any confusion over semantic meaning. Additionally, it stops any potential for being thought as operating from a one-up position; using ‘better’ words than them, as if their own words ‘were not good enough’.

There is at least one further advantage in the 1-2-1 situation. That is that Reflective Language does not need re-interpretation or any intellectual processing. This is of particular advantage when we are helping a person to learn and develop. When Reflective Language is used well, by an expert manager or coach, most people are not aware of it being used (when asked subsequently). We know this from a mass of video material from 1-2-1’s performed in front of audiences. In fact, the coachees in this situation are also invariably unaware of the audience and media technology; because their attention has gone ‘internal’. Internal processing is exactly what is needed for an individual to make new connections, to learn, to develop and change.

The practice of Reflective Language demands exquisite listening. To begin with, a leader may only recall one significant word and reflect that back, but with experience, further words and short phrases (that seem significant to the speaker) can be reflected back before (typically), asking another question.

“So, if I heard you right, you feel ‘suffocated’ when Barbara goes into what you call her ‘preaching mode’. When Barbara is in that mode, what would someone else need to believe, or do, in order to respond professionally?”

Like riding a bike, practice makes perfect and that is why we set up a not-for-profit organization supporting coaches and managers and providing an e-group, so that members can find other people to practice with, in a learning environment.

Fear of Silence

Many managers talk so there will be no silences. The effect is that, in their anxiety to prevent silences, they may interrupt people – before they have finished speaking. A test of this, apart from just trying to notice, is to make a habit of breathing for half a second before replying to people. This has the added benefit of providing time to recall a word or phrase to reflect back, but also a time during which any personal discomfort about the silence may be noticed.

If you find (or already know) that you are uncomfortable with silences up until now, it is useful to practice with silence. In the training room, we run a programme called the ‘Power of Silence’ in which a seven minute 1-2-1 is run (where the manager just listens and is not permitted to intervene in any way). After some practice, the managers are much more comfortable with a few seconds of silence in conversations when back at work! Interestingly, in seven minutes of talking (without interruption), some people fix a long-term annoyance at work!


Exquisite listening is a learned skill that anyone can improve. It offers the prospect of better rapport and enhanced individual & team performance. A number of common issues that get in the way have been highlighted as well as simple strategies for breaking through, and enhancing, existing skills. One of these skills is the use of silence. We have detailed just one skill using silence, but in fact there are different types of silence, including ‘silence to keep someone on the spot’ and force them to acknowledge a weakness. Another, (where the Power of Silence name comes from) is the silence that may follow a challenging question and creates self-reflective, generative ‘experiencing’ – sometimes it creates a major, cathartic shift to enormous new perception, motivation and action. More of that in a later posting!

© Angus McLeod, 2015.


[1]. Adapted after Bateson, G. (1992). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine by Dilts, R (1994) Strategy of Genius Vol. 1.
[2]. McLeod, A.I. (2003) Performance Coaching, Crown House, NY and Carmarthen, UK.

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