Dave Conrad: Leadership and listening go hand in hand

Many studies over the decades have estimated that we spend – or should spend — anywhere from a third to half our time listening.

Dear Dave: I have a question about listening. At my company, we always tell our employees that management wants their feedback and they are there to listen to whatever the employees have to say. This seems contradictory to the reality at my company — I think we, as managers, do not really do a very good job of listening to our staff. What do you think? Any ideas to help us listen better? — K

Dear K: Hey, I'm listening! Listening is mandatory and can be a powerful and persuasive leadership practice. But, it only works in an organization that values listening and where everyone — not just management — makes it a mission to learn and incorporate sincere, empathic listening into everyday communications and interactions.

The opportunities to truly listen to what others are saying — or are trying to say — are all around us and we need to learn to tune in to the messages and their meaning. Many studies during the decades have estimated that we spend — or should spend — anywhere from a third to half our time listening. But I, personally, tend to believe we may hear, but not actively listen and capture the full meaning of what others are saying.

"Seek first to understand, then to be understood," said management theorist Peter Senge.

Some of the most influential people I have known were great listeners, and when I was talking, they made me feel like nothing else in the world mattered more than giving me their undivided attention. This is powerful stuff. I think about these people and try to practice as they did when listening to people.


All of us are in a hurry and we tend to pull words out of peoples' mouths, rush them to finish what they have to say and even spend the valuable listening time preparing the next statement we want so urgently to blurt out. This is not dialogue — this is people trading statements. True dialogue exists when people talk from the heart to the heart and take the time necessary to empathize by stepping into the other person's shoes. How can we truly converse, if we do not first take the time to understand?

Active listening for leaders

I first want to say if — as a manager — one of your employees comes to you with something to say, drop what you are doing and sit back and listen. Few things are as discouraging as trying to talk to someone who is busy with their computer, cellphone or whatever else they are trying to accomplish — and they tell you, "Hey I'm listening." They're not! Put down your pen and even close your computer. Look these people in the eyes and listen.

Also, managers should make every effort to draw people out by asking good, probing questions. When listening to their staff, managers should seek to learn more and dig deeper into the topic or observation. I always say, "Go deeper and tell me more." I also try to ask people how they came to learn about what they have to say and if they have any ideas to improve or fix their observations and discoveries.

In meetings, hallway conversations and in performance reviews, managers should make every attempt to keep the discussions interactive and meaningful. The goal is to create a culture of listening and understanding, and managers need to practice what they preach. Like you mentioned, saying we listen does not mean it actually is being done and embraced.

Finally, set up discussion forums and what is termed, "listening posts." Make every attempt to design avenues of two-way input and communication with your staff, and provide them the time and the means to say what they have to say. And please do not shoot the messenger when people tell you things you don't want to hear.

If they think they are going to upset you and be reprimanded — because they brought forth uncomfortable news — then all news will stop coming.

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