If A Leader Could Only Do One Thing, 5

“Psychologists have found that we are each more interested in knowing that the other person is trying to empathize with us – that they are willing to struggle to understand how we feel and see how we see – than we are in believing that they have actually accomplished that goal.” Excerpt From: Stone, Douglas; Patton, Bruce; Heen, Sheila. “Difficult Conversations.”

I may have the gift to speak what God has revealed, and I may understand all mysteries and have all knowledge. I may even have enough faith to move mountains. But if I don’t have love, I am nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:2

I originally intended to write just one post – telling the story of when I was asked if I could name a “most important” leadership competency. But then the views and email questions came and so I’ve been, in essence, answering questions since then.

In part 1 , 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 addressed the essential reason for listening while part 3 concerned the 70/30 principle of listening. Part 4 was about the danger of asking questions that aren’t really questions.

Finally, I’d like to challenge you as a leader to listen closely to the questions that are not being asked – the silent questions you must answer in virtually every meaningful conversation you have with someone you lead.

I’ve worked with some leaders who struggle with this. They are what I call concrete literalists. They say things like:

“Why should I answer a question if he doesn’t have the guts to ask it?”

“Since when is it my job to read her mind?”

If that’s your approach, I think the concept of empathic listening will be more difficult for you.

However, if your goal in listening is more about real understanding, the concept of the “silent question” will be easier to grasp and work with.

There are many questions that won’t be asked – using words – that an effective leader finds a way to answer – in the affirmative. This is best done through effective empathic listening and use of the 70/30 principle:

Listening on park bench

The Silent Questions

  • Do I really matter to you or are you interested only because of what I can do for you?
  • This is important to me. Is it important to you?
  • Am I safe with you or am I going to have to defend myself?
  • Are my feelings here OK with you? Do you accept them even if you may not agree with them?
  • Do you want to understand me? Are you willing to work at it?

Sometimes, simply working at true empathic listening answers these questions for you. (Remember part 1 – empathic listening speaks volumes.) Other times, the leader-listener has to work at making the answers explicit. The kinds of questions/statements that fit the bill include:

  • Say more about how you felt then.
  • I can see how that would have made you respond the way you did.
  • I’d like to hear more about that.
  • Even though we don’t see eye-to-eye on this, I can definitely understand your response.
  • What can I do to help?
  • How can I serve you more effectively in this?
  • Let’s pray about this together.

Finally, remember what you are told, even if you have to write it down when the conversation ends (that’s often what I do). When you pay attention to what someone tells you, remembering facts or details that some would consider insignificant, you reinforce the idea that you really do listen.

While it’s certainly true that effective leaders are committed to doing many things well, I don’t have any second thoughts about my choice that, of all of them, listening is most important.

How are you doing?

Suggested Resources
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundation for Successful Leadership
Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well


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