The listening leader

Bad listening is unforgettable.

I still recall the occasion like it was just yesterday. Sitting down for a meeting with a senior colleague, explaining my thoughts on a topic, only for them to cut me off mid-sentence with a comment about a completely unrelated matter. Their glancing over my shoulder earlier in the conversation should have been a give-away that they weren’t listening, but this response made it perfectly clear!

Listening in leadership

Increasingly the working world is recognising the importance of listening, especially when it comes to leadership. In the book Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication the first chapter is titled "Listening to people" - a striking opening chapter for a book all about effective communication! Similarly, Judith Humphrey is the founder of leadership communications firm The Humphrey Group. She says that with the flattening of leadership structures in recent decades has come the need for people at all levels of an organisation to be good listeners. Listening fosters loyalty, and yet “listening is not something people in business are comfortable with yet”. And when it comes to the different genders, men are particularly bad at this, interrupting women three times as much as women interrupt men.

Listening the hallmark of wisdom

But listening is more important than just being good for business. Proverbs says that listening is a hallmark of the wise person. The fool on the other hand never stops talking.  “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (10:19). “The way of a fool seems wise to him, but a wise man listens to advice” (12:5). “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding, but delights in airing his own opinions” (18:2).

In Proverbs, the fool prattles, chatters and speaks before listening. The wise on the other hand fear God and recognise that they are not the fount of all wisdom. They instead listen to the wisdom of others. They hold their tongue and store up knowledge, so that when they do speak - because Proverbs is all for the wise person speaking - they have listened so much beforehand that they have apt and fitting words to say (25:11). No wonder listening is good for leadership!

The ministry of listening

In his book Life Together Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a chapter called “The Ministry of Listening”. He writes that there are many times when “listening can be a greater service than speaking”. He warns of danger of “a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say”. This, Bonhoeffer says, “is an impatient, inattentive listening, that...is only waiting for a chance to speak.”.

But Bonhoeffer takes this inability to listen one step further, warning of the eternal danger of not listening. “He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life…Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God, but only for himself and for his own follies”. If you just “prattle in the presence” of colleagues and employees, Bonhoeffer warns that it won’t be long before you’re too busy prattling in the presence of God. You’ll take the practice of thinking that you know everything and introduce it to your relationship with God also. Which is not just foolish; it’s deadly.

The how-to of listening

So how do we become good listeners? Like all right living it requires both heart change and habit change.

Our words are a reflection of our hearts. “For our of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). And our inability to be quiet and listen is also an overflow of the heart. It is the proud heart that never listens to the wisdom of others. They know it all so there is no need to be quiet and learn from others. Rather, as we’ve already noted, the wise person in Proverbs fears the Lord (1:7). They have a humble regard for themselves before the maker of heaven and earth. So the first step to becoming a good listener is a daily reminder of your status which awakens a right and appropriate fear of the Lord, and with it humility.

But heart change can be aided by habit change as we seek to practice the “ministry of listening”. And we can look widely to learn from the wisdom of others for how to listen well. Judith Humphrey again suggests that there are three kinds of listening, all of which are important in the workplace. Firstly there is physical listening, where you look the person speaking in the eye, or turn towards them. This physical posture both helps you concentrate on what the person is saying, and communicates that you are paying attention. Secondly there is mental listening where you create a mental road map of what the person is saying. You take note of their points of logic and the conclusions that they are making, which allows you to then engage with them and ask thoughtful questions. Thirdly there is emotional listening which is another way of speaking about empathising. You affirm what the speaker is saying with a few simple words or with your body language. All three types of listening both communicate that you are paying attention, but also help you truly listen and take on board what is being said.

Judith Humphrey tells of the manager who says “I have to lead by listening”. Listening is not just for the employee. It is also for the employer. Indeed it is for all those who fear the Lord and want to be truly wise.

Tags: