If A Leader Could Only Do One Thing, 3

I have no idea if my husband is listening to me. He’s there, and he’s not doing anything else, but it’s a little like talking to furniture.

The “conversations” I have with my boss are not conversations. There isn’t real dialogue. He usually starts by telling me how important my thoughts and ideas are to him, and then he gives me instructions for 30 minutes and sends me on my way.

My sister smiles and nods a lot when I’m talking to her. But I have a sneaking suspicion she’s not really listening. I think that if I suddenly broke off my point and said, ‘…and that’s when I had to deliver the baby hippopotamus right there in the back of the taxi…’ she would continue to smile and nod pleasantly.


In part 1 of this post series, I wrote about answering the following question in one of my lectures:  “I understand that the most effective leaders do several things well, but if you had to choose just one, what would it be?” Although there are many important leadership competencies, I chose listening.

In part 2, I tried to explain the most important – and in fact THE essential – reason for listening. If you can’t care and honestly endeavor to understand, you can’t listen.

This time, a little about the “how” of the listening conversation.

Our tendency as leaders is to talk too much in most situations, as explained in the previous post. It’s likely obvious that talking too much kills the process of understanding in a listening conversation.

But so does shutting up completely.

Empathic listening cannot be accomplished with silence, if only because silence doesn’t answer the speaker’s most important question: Are you listening and understanding?

Real, empathic listening is participative. Active listeners engage, encourage, work to understand (and, make no mistake, understanding is work). It is neither monopolizing the conversation nor staring silently back, thus the 70/30 principle.

Aubrey and Jamie 2Aubrey and Jamie 2

The 70/30 principle states that, in general, when you are in a primary listening role, you are speaking 30% of the time while your partner-in-conversation is speaking 70% of the time. (Think about the last conversation you had in your role as a leader, did you find yourself speaking more than 30% of the time?)

What do you do with your 30%? The short answer is – you do what it takes to encourage the speaker to communicate more and more deeply. Nods, smiles, and plenty of eye contact. Words that convey safety and understanding. The longer answer…

  • Ask good questions. At the end of this email I’m including a list of 31.
  • Tell the listener you want to hear more.
  • Paraphrase a key thought to encourage the listener to expand or clarify.
  • Use non-verbals to demonstrate care and encourage.
  • Thank the speaker for their trust, honesty, time, etc.

Overall, be there. Engage, respect and never forget the significant difference between 70% and 30%.


Thirty-one great listener’s questions:

  1. What does the Lord seem to be saying to you?
  2. What’s the Godly thing to do?
  3. Why do you think you felt that way?
  4. What were your thoughts at the time?
  5. Can you give me more detail on that?
  6. Where do you think we should go from here?
  7. What would you have done?
  8. What do you think about what happened?
  9. Why did you think that was the best decision at the time?
  10. What concerns do you have?
  11. How do you feel you’re being misunderstood?
  12. What should I have done differently?
  13. How can I help?
  14. What would success look like to you in this case?
  15. Are you certain you are reading their intentions accurately?
  16. What would you have done differently?
  17. What’s your next step?
  18. What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
  19. What are you afraid of?
  20. What are you excited about?
  21. What does your gut tell you?
  22. Do you think this is a task issue or a relationship issue?
  23. Can you tell me more about that?
  24. What was most frustrating for you in this case?
  25. What was the best part of the experience?
  26. How can I best help?
  27. What did you learn?
  28. What do you think the real problem is?
  29. How do you feel about it?
  30. In what ways do you feel unappreciated?
  31. Do you think you were wrong?

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