Leadership 8: The most important skill for a leader is listening.

A sign posted by an intern on my office door after one of our talks.

“Listening is the golden key that opens the door to human relationship.”  Willam Ury, TEDxSanDiego, The power of listening

“The language of empathy does not come naturally to us. It’s not part of our ‘mother tongue.’ Most of us grew up having our feelings denied.” Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish,   How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk

In a nutshell:

Listening is the most important leadership skill because when a leader listens to a team member, and that team member feels heard, and supported without being judged, that team member begins to trust the leader.  And trust is the most important aspect of building a relationship, and building those relationships is how a leader goes from being a Level 1 boss who the team must follow if they want to get their paycheck, to becoming a Level 2 leader, who the team wants to follow because they like and respect the leader.

Credit: Girls Giving Back

The Principles for Listening like a Leader:

1. Listening is the most important tool for a leader because it allows them to connect to their team members individually.

2. What is Active, Intentional Listening?

3. How my love of listening, and my Interns’ comments, helped me solve the kindness mystery.

4. Making listening “Job 1.”

5. Why should you care about developing better listening skills?  Because we are all counselors whether you want to be or not.

6. There are three situations when you as a leader will be listening to a team member during the day.

A. The easiest situation is when a questioner is seeking information to help the team member do their job.

B. A more complex situation is when a team member is seeking support or understanding and we listen as part of building relationships .

C. Equally important, but more elusive, is the third situation when you detect an unspoken question or plea for help and you invite the team member to share their concerns.

1. Listening is the most important tool for a leader because it allows them to connect to their team members individually.

Credit: PaulClaireaux.com

In this post we will deal with three situations in which a leader must listen: when a team member is solely seeking information; or when a team member is seeking support; or when the leader detects an unspoken plea for help.  The fourth situation, when the leader is listening in a group, will be discussed in a separate post. 

2. What is Active, Intentional Listening?

How does a leader engage in active, intentional listening?  There are seven steps to follow, and in the next post we will go through them one-by-one so you understand how to put the steps into practice.  In this post I just want to introduce you to the concepts and give you examples of what it looks like.

It starts with creating the environment where the team member has the space and time to speak.  Then the leader listens without interrupting or judging.  They mirror the words of the speaker to show they are listening and to encourage them to continue.  The leader asks questions only for clarification, summarizes what they believe they have heard to ensure they are hearing correctly, and finally, they determine if suggestions are wanted or appropriate.  It sounds easy, but it is hard because we were never taught how to do it. Fortunately it is a skill you can learn, and in the next post we will talk about how the specific behaviors you can use to implement active, intentional listening, and empower your team member to feel they have been heard, understood, and their feeling have been validated.

I want to start this off with two short videos which demonstrate the type of listening you need to use with your team members when they are seeking support.  Listening in this manner will help establish relationships that will have them willing to walk through fire to make your team succeed. Or at least it did in the fire department!

“Inside Out”

The approach taken by Joy and Sadness are examples of what Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish mean in our title quote when they say, “The language of empathy does not come naturally to us. It’s not part of our ‘mother tongue.’ Most of us grew up having our feelings denied.” Joy tries to deny Bing Bong’s feelings of sadness by distracting him, while Sadness acknowledges and validates those feelings.

“Most of of grew up having our feelings denied.” 

In this clip we see Joy try to dance around Bing Bong’s emotions, something I think we all will recognize. Joy tries to deny and ignore his feeling of overwhelming sadness and loss so he will guide them back to the train station.  “Hey! It’s going to be okay! We can fix this!” “Who is ticklish?  Here comes the tickle monster!” Joy tries to make him laugh by making a silly face. “Oh, here is a fun game! You point to the train station and we all go there!”

I hate to say it, but I have certainly been guilty of using those tactics of distraction to get my daughters and others to ignore their feelings.

Acknowledging Bing Bong’s Feelings by listening and validating them.

Sadness does a great job of active, intentional listening.

Sadness: “I’m sorry they took your rocket.”  She is mirroring his sadness. 

Sadness: “They took something that you loved.” And importantly, she sits next to him, creating the space for him to speak to her. 

Sadness: “It’s gone, forever.”

Joy: “Sadness, don’t make him feel worse!”  (This is why we deny the feelings of others, because we believe that if we validate those feeling the person will feel worse.)

Bing Bong: “It’s all I had left of Riley.”

Sadness: “I bet you and Riley had great adventures.” She is encouraging him to continue to speak.

Bing Bong: “Oh they were wonderful! Once we flew back in time.  We had breakfast twice that day.”

Joy tries to interrupt, but Sadness ignores her.

Sadness: “Sounds amazing, I bet Riley liked it.”

Bing Bong: “Oh she did, we were best friends.”

Sadness: “Yeah, it’s sad.” She gives a comforting touch and here come the waterworks!

Bing Bong cries, recovers, sighs deeply. “I’m okay now.  The train station is this way.”

Joy’s attempts to deny his feelings and to distract him went unheard.  But when Sadness gave him permission to express his feelings, those emotions welled up into tears, which allowed him to recover.

That is what we can do through active, intentional listening, and as leaders we can help our team members identify and acknowledge the feelings they are feeling, express those feelings, and move on.


This second video offers a near perfect example of the kind of active, intentional listening I do, and that you can learn to do. In the video Nathan is seated on the swing.  We will refer back to this video from time to time because it hits many of the important elements of compassionate, supportive listening.  The video is from an episode of season one of “Upload,” a 2020 series on Amazon prime video.  Wiki provided a summary which I have expanded: In 2033, just before dying, humans are able to ‘upload’ themselves into a virtual afterlife of their choosing. When computer programmer Nathan dies prematurely, he is uploaded to the very expensive Lake View virtual afterlife. After a person’s consciousness is uploaded they are assigned “an Angel” which is a living person who is actually a ‘customer service rep’ who can control the uploaded person’s environment. When a customer summons their Angel, they usually have a request such as “How can I get a new wardrobe?” or “I want to learn to paint.”

At this point in the series we know a bit about Nora’s backstory, she has the normal struggles of a living person, her social life, (she refers to ‘Nitely’ a dating app which has not been working out that well for her) her job, where she was recently scolded for not getting enough 5-star reviews after her interactions with her other uploaded customers, and most importantly, her dying father who has misgivings about being uploaded to a digital afterlife.

As this scene begins Nora is annoyed after receiving a 3-star rating from another uploaded customer, and she appears as a hologram when Nathan summons her. He has called her because he has sensed that she is upset, and, in a role reversal, rather than asking her for help, Nathan wants to help her.  He begins by giving her 5-star reviews for doing absolutely nothing, just to improve her average and cheer her up.

Nora is sitting next to Nathan, sighs deeply. “Well, thanks.  I feel a lot better.”

Nathan: “I didn’t do anything but listen.”

I have always loved that point in my listening moments, when the person sighs, because it shows they feel some relief, they are more relaxed.  I knew I had helped them, just by listening without interrupting or judging.  By encouraging and asking clarifying questions.  By just being with them in the moment they needed someone to listen.

If you want to learn how to do that, I am about to show you how.

3. How my love of listening, and my Interns’ comments, helped me solve the kindness mystery.

My interns and coworkers often described me as being “kind,” and I was not sure why that would be something to brag about because, as I was raised by my mother, kindness was the most basic level of acceptable behavior. One of her many rules-to-live-by included: “The very least you can do is be kind!  If I ever hear that you have been unkind to anyone, I will make you sorry!” And she meant it!

Throughout my ten years at the ABA I would be repeatedly referred to as “the kindest person I ever met” and the repetition made me none the wiser as to what that meant, or why they said it.  It wasn’t until I started studying the important role that listening plays in being an influential leader that I started to understand what they were talking about.  I just looked up “kindness” on dictionary.com and found some synonyms: generosity, charity, sympathy, compassion, and tenderness. What actions can we take which will lead people to attach these attributes to us?  One important way is listening with complete attention, without judging.  And in my experience, listening is the most important act in building the relationships you need to get from Level 1 leadership where people have to follow you to get paid, to Level 2 leadership where people want to follow you because they trust you to keep them safe and they know you have their best interests at heart.

Recall John Maxwell emphasized the importance of establishing relationships if you want to moved from Level 1 to Level 2 leadership when people began to like you. 

And how do you get your team members for like you? You listen to them.

You can see the full video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsSSKguP7Yw&feature=youtu.be

4. Making listening “Job 1”

Interns and coworkers repeatedly said they had never worked with someone who invests so much concentration in every interaction with them as I did.  And it is true that when they appeared at my office door I would drop everything I was doing, invite them to be seated, move away from my standing desk to sit next to them, put my elbow on the armrest, chin on palm, keep my gaze locked on them, giving them my undivided attention as I listened intently to their question or concern, with gentle prompts to encourage them to keep talking. 

The view from my chair when I was listening.

Angela St. Pierre, someone worth listening to!

Apparently, people are not used to getting that level of attentiveness, and when we get it, we find doors opening that may have been closed for a very long time.  Twice I have had young women in that chair tell me that they had been raped, and each said they have never told that to anyone before.  The level of  trust they showed in me by sharing that was the first step in establishing a supportive relationship that helped them begin to work through such a difficult issue and I know we will be supporting each other for the rest of our lives.

Why I’m a listener: Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer

The biotech giant’s chief executive describes the epiphany that made him a better listener and explains why listening is a survival skill for leaders and organizations.

See the original video: https://www.mckinsey.com/Videos/video?vid=2341006402001&plyrid=HkOJqCPWdb

5. Why should you care about developing better listening skills?  Because we are all counselors whether you want to be or not.

People come to us for advice all day.  In the office, a co-worker may express frustration with the actions of a bad boss, and we listen to them and discuss strategies on how to push through their anger.  After work, over drinks, a friend shares concerns about their relationship.  Our child seems sad when they get home from school and we gently probe to see what caused this during the school day.  I had many important talks, sitting in my pickup truck with my daughters after I picked them up from the school bus. These were often the most important minutes of my day for our relationship because they had my undivided attention and I was always listening intently while acting as though we had all the time in the world.  I would ask about their day and then let my silence draw out their boredom, or joy or sadness.  

We spend so much time listening, we need to learn how to do it better. It is a skill you can use in almost any interaction with other people, because people open up and give of themselves if they feel the listener is taking a genuine interest in them

Overview: The three ways a leader uses listening.

(Note: As I said before, there is a fourth way a leader uses particular listening skills – when working with a group.  This will be discussed in a later post focusing on listening when in a group.)

6. There are three situations when you as a leader will be listening to a team member during the day.

A. The easiest situation is when a questioner is seeking information to help the team member do their job.

B. A more complex situation is when a team member is seeking support or understanding and we listen as part of building relationships .

C. Equally important is the third situation when you detect an unspoken question or plea for help and you invite the team member to share their concerns.

A. It is easy to listen to questions seeking information to help the team member do their job. (“What is the phone number for the court?” “How many days does someone have to file an appeal?” “Where do I get more paper for the printer?”)

While the questions may seem easy to answer, what we say and what the other person hears may be two completely different things.  

The answers may be easy, but you must accept responsibility for clearly communicating the information.

On the first day of intern orientation my introduction included this advice: “If I tell you I want you to do something, or if I answer a question, and you don’t understand me, that’s my fault, because I am the only person on planet Earth who knows what I am trying to communicate.  Therefore, I am giving you permission to keep asking me questions until you have a clear understanding of exactly what I am trying to say.  A continuous series of questions is not nagging me, it is helping me learn how to communicate better.”

This is exactly the same advice that I gave my daughters when they were little, another example of how leadership is like parenting.

As a corollary to this, when I give instructions to someone I always finish with, “Is that clear, am I explaining that clearly?”  rather than “Do you understand?”  With the first form of the question “Is that clear?” I am giving the person the permission to tell me I have not been clear, that I am failing to explain it well.  In the second form of the question, “Do you understand?” for the other person to admit they don’t understand may make them feel it is a failure on their part.   I learned this difference from the Spanish language.  It is considered impolite to ask, ¿Entiendes? (Do you understand?), the preferred construction is ¿Me explico? (Did I explain myself?)

Never assume that your team knows everything you know. 

We often run into a problem when we know something, and then we are shocked when someone else doesn’t know it. Or when we know how to do something, and assume everyone must know how to do it, too. (Bad boss response to admission one doesn’t know how to do something: “Hello! Anybody home? Have you been paying any attention?”)  The way we avoid making poor assumptions is by asking questions and observing our people to ensure they know how to do something.

An embarrassing example from my past was my first court hearing in Iowa.  It was a landlord / tenant case, my client was being evicted for not paying his rent, he had not paid his rent, it was a rather open and shut case.  Because it was my first court appearance, the Managing Attorney of the office, Roger Foreman, came along as my “second chair” to assist me.  During that hearing I made a series of mistakes by failing to promptly object to hearsay – the landlord testified about what some third person had told him that my client had told the third person.  I know now that is called hearsay on hearsay.  I did not know it that day.

A skilled lawyer would have objected as soon as the landlord uttered the words, “I talked to him AND HE SAID,”

“Objection! Hearsay!”

Judge: “Objection sustained”

Well I didn’t I object I sat their like the ignorant amateur I was and Roger was so dumbfounded by my silence he couldn’t find the words to help me.

As we left the courthouse to walk back to the office, Roger regained the gift of speech. “That was horrible.  Why didn’t you object?”

“Because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Oh, thank god,” Roger said and patted me on the back.  “I can teach you how to be a good lawyer, I was just afraid you were stupid. I can fix unskilled, but there is no fix for stupid.”

How to help your team members continue to grow by changing the form of your answers. 

Over time the course of time working with undergraduates and law student interns I slowly changed how I answered their questions to incorporate how much they had learned.  At the beginning of their internship everything was unfamiliar, so when they would ask me what we do in a certain situation, I gave them detailed instructions.

A few weeks later we could build on what they had already learned, so they would ask me what we do in a certain situation and I would respond in a Socratic way.  “Let’s think about this for a second, can you remember any similar situation we had?”  They think and remember one. “So knowing what did we do then, what should we do now?” and we would work it out together.

The final stage of the evolution of answering questions was the one thing all good lawyers love, trying to solve a puzzle.  At this stage I would sit with an intern or maybe a group, and I would pose a series of questions, “The detainee says he not getting proper medical treatment.  How would we structure a complaint to ICE?”

“How would we substantiate our complaint?”

“How would ICE respond?”

“How could we rebut their excuses?”

With guiding questions everyone gets engaged and the discussion begins to blossom, people learn to think like lawyers.  I always closely observed how people responded to this type of discussion, the interns I believed were going to most enjoy representing clients were always the ones that went silent and looked up at the ceiling when I gave them a hard question.  There was often a lot of face touching, hair twirling, and sounds of thought, “Hmmmm.”  Those were the folks who were going to enjoy solving the legal puzzles lawyers face every day.

2. The second situation is one in which you will be listening when a team member is seeking support or understanding. This type of question arises when someone is asking you for support, or they are seeking your understanding of some issue they are dealing with.  “Could I talk to you for a minute?”  “I am feeling overwhelmed.” “I have a problem.”

I remember one memorable introduction to a supportive talk with former intern and now wonderful friend Cynthia, who was upset after a call with an immigration detainee. “Remember how you said that at some point everybody ends up crying in your office?  Well, today is my day.” And it was.

Cynthia Marlene Galaz went on to supervise a detainee hotline for Freedom For Immigrants in Los Angeles, and here she is being interviewed on Telemundo. ICE shut down their hotline when it was mentioned on the program “Orange is the New Black” but Cynthia’s team sued ICE and won!

When a leader recognizes such a listening situation, they will employ the Seven steps to Active, Intentional Listening which will be discussed below. When you listen successfully in this manner you show your team member that you care, you make them feel safe, and you build trust.  This may look confusing, but in the next post we will discuss each step.

3. True leadership allows you to detect the third situation, an unspoken question or plea for help.

A far more subtle listening situation arises when you are checking in with your team members and you get the feeling “something is wrong” even when the team member does not, or cannot, articulate it.  For instance, when someone who is usually full of life gives a tired response, or gives a positive response with no emotion, or gives a big sigh after saying everything is “just great.” 

In the scene from “Upload” we see an unspoken plea for help.

Before the scene starts Nathan has noted that Nora is being curt and rude with her responses to his questions, that she is not her usual cheerful self, so Nathan  gives her permission to talk about what is bothering her.

Nora: “Okay, seriously, what can I do for you? Just ask me anything.”

Nathan: “You know what you can do for me?  You can tell me what is wrong. Cause you have been like all URRRRRRR! all day.”

This is a perfect example of reading the emotions of a team member and inviting them to speak to you so you can listen to them deliberately.  And you can see the effect this has on the other person, Nora’s posture changes as she drops her guard.

When you know your team well enough to recognize they are troubled or hear pain in a casual response, you can respond to their unspoken pleas for support.  And when are successful in helping a team member express themselves, recognize what they are feeling, and clarify their problem, you will have created a relationship with that team member where they will start thinking of you as the kindest person they ever met. And it doesn’t take long for your team members to notice that things said casually to you over time can be put together piece-by-piece to help you learn something about them that even they didn’t realize.

Sign posted on my door by Bianca DiMarcello in the summer of 2011.

Karen, Bianca, Amanda and Kerry

An example of recognizing an unspoken cry for help

I had an undergrad intern who moved to DC for the summer and her family lived in the Midwest.  She was a great worker, smart, bubbly, dedicated to helping detainees, and great leader of the other interns.  One Monday morning I did my usual check-in with all the interns and when I was chatting with her I received the same answer I always did.  “How was your weekend?”  “Good, and yours?”  But what I caught in her tone and body language told me something was wrong. 

“Could I speak to you in my office for a second?”  I asked. “Sure.”

We walked into my office, I closed the door, and she burst into tears.  Her father had a history of abusing her mother, and he had beaten her over the weekend.  Usually, my intern was there to intervene or at least to support her mother afterward, but here she was a thousand miles away, absolutely helpless, while her mother was suffering.

We sat and I let her talk it out, after which she settled back in her chair.  “Thanks for listening, I feel better, but I don’t know what to do today.”

“In my experience, when someone on my team has a major stress like this in their life they do one of two things.  Some people want to stay in the office and work because it distracts them from a situation where there is really nothing they can do right now to change the situation.  The other choice is to leave work because you will be unable to concentrate, so sitting here while your mind is back home will feel like torture.  You can choose either, I will support your choice.”

She thought for a bit.  “I think I’ll stay.”

An hour later she came into my office, “Is it all right if I go home?  I need to talk to my mom.”

I said it was fine, she texted me ninety minutes later to say she had talked to her mom, that things seemed under control, her mom didn’t want her to worry.  And she asked if she could stay home and go to sleep because she was emotionally exhausted.  Of course she could.

Trust me, when you have been through an experience like there, helping a team member weather an emotional thunderstorm, they will work twice as hard for you and the team.  They would probably donate a kidney if you needed on.  And all I did was listen.

An aside, about five years into my time supervising the detainee hotline the ABA moved into a new building.  There would be a combination of offices and cubicles and as our leader at the time, Megan Mack, was concerned about the budget I told her I did not need an office, I could work fine in a cubicle.  Megan looked at me and shook her head.  “Bob, if you didn’t have an office, where could people go to cry?”

Bea worked at the ABA and when she left she gave me a box of Kleenex with this yellow sticker attached.  I went through many boxes of Kleenex after that and always moved this sticker to the new box.

We need listening classes, I’ll give it a try in the next post.

We have speech classes, but not listening classes We never receive formal training in listening, and therefore we take listening for granted, but it needs to be learned and practiced.  Because we have never been trained in listening, we just they take turns speaking, looking for gaps in the conversation so they can jump in.  As we just saw in this video, Nathan doesn’t interrupt to stop Nora, he supports her by showing he is listening and encourages her to go on.

So what’s so hard about listening?

Active, Intentional Listens is hard because you are asked to break every habit you presently use when another person is talking.  Did you notice I didn’t say “every habit you presently use when you are listening?”  That was intentional because in most of what we call “conversations” we only listen long enough to get the gist of where the speaker is going, then we flip the switch, stop listening and start formulating our suggestion or witty comeback.  Once we have our response prepared we tune back in to the words being spoken, but only to find a break in the action where we can jump in and get back on center stage. 

That type of verbal exchange is about us, and what we want to say, not about the other person and trying to understand what they are trying to say.

It can be difficult to learn to focus on listening, without interrupting, and then when you do speak, you do so only to clarify things you did not understand, or ask about things that seemed to go unsaid.

It takes practice and it all boils down to closing your mouth, opening your heart, and focusing on making sure that person feels heard and appreciated.  That is our next post.

Coming Attractions: Leadership 9: Making Active, Intentional Listening Part of Your Daily Routine.

We will apply all of these steps to the scene from “Upload.” It will be fun!

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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