If A Leader Could Only Do One Thing, 2

“The problem is this: you are taught what to say and how to sit, but the heart of good listening is authenticity. People “read” not only your words and posture, but what’s going on inside of you. If your “stance” isn’t genuine, the words won’t matter. What will be communicated almost invariably is whether you are genuinely curious, whether you genuinely care about the other person. If your intentions are false, no amount of careful wording or good posture will help. If your intentions are good, even clumsy language won’t hinder you. Listening is only powerful and effective if it is authentic. Authenticity means that you are listening because you are curious and because you care, not just because you are supposed to. The issue, then, is this: Are you curious? Do you care?” Excerpt From: Stone, Douglas; Patton, Bruce; Heen, Sheila. “Difficult Conversations.”

In part 1 of this post series, I wrote about a question I received from a student after completing a session on the leadership practices with the greatest return on investment. At the end of the session one of the students approached and asked, “I understand that the most effective leaders do several things well, but if you had to choose just one, what would it be?”

Not wanting to cop out, I bit.

“Listening,” I said.

And, although listening seems to be a very warm, soft and cuddly skill, I actually chose it because it is, I believe, the most productive leadership competency. In other words, it gets the most done per unit of energy.

I made the suggestion in the first post that, first of all, listening speaks. The act of true empathic listening says things (very good things) about you, your organization and the relationship you have with the person you are leading. As leaders, we sometimes see our jobs as talking – which is how we often define communicating. Yet the act of listening can say much more than words.

Many of us in leadership positions are often put in a situation in which we are expected to talk. And so talking becomes our  default position. People look to us so we speak. And, sometimes, if we find ourselves not talking we think something is wrong, so we fire it back up again. But the beauty of listening is that it can be the best kind of “talking.”

Listening “says”, “You can trust me, we’re in this together, you don’t need to be afraid…” All those things that a person simply must know to be productive, fulfilled, innovative and effective.

But, here’s the rub.  There are lots of wrong reasons for listening and your reason for listening does matter – as Stone, Patton and Heen note above. Or, more specifically, if listening isn’t authentic, it may be worse than a waste of time. Think of some of the reasons you might engage in listening to someone you lead:

  • I’m listening to you so I can find out more about the problem so I can fix it.
  • I’m listening to you so you’ll eventually do what I want you to do.
  • I’m listening to you because I know I should.
  • I’m listening to you because I like you and you’re safe.
  • I’m listening to you because it’s an important leadership competency.
  • I’m listening to you because it’s part of my responsibility.
  • I’m listening to you because it’s polite and respectful.
  • I’m listening to you because it’s biblical.
  • I’m listening to you so I won’t feel guilty later.
  • I’m listening to you so you’ll like me.

Any of those sound familiar?

But, really, there’s only one most important reason to listen and it must be in place first and foremost.


  • I’m listening to you because I care about you and want to understand.

The question I get most often about this in an honest one: “Well, what if I really don’t care?”

Fair question. Just know that you can’t be authentic until you get to the point where you actually do. Your curiosity has to be real and obvious.

For Stone, Patton and Heen, that starts with getting a good handle on your own voice, or at least your internal voice, to find out how that might be blocking your ability to be curious about the other person, to care, and therefore to listen authentically.

“If you find your curiosity failing, you can work to rev it up. Remind yourself that the task of understanding the other person’s world is always harder than it seems. Remind yourself that if you think you already understand how someone else feels or what they are trying to say, it is a delusion. Remember a time when you were sure you were right and then discovered one little fact that changed everything. There is always more to learn. Remind yourself of the depth, complexities, contradictions, and nuances that make up the stories of each of our lives.” Excerpt From: Stone, Douglas; Patton, Bruce; Heen, Sheila. “Difficult Conversations.”

In the next post, “The 70-30 Principle.”

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