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Leadership Toolbox: The Listening Conversation

Brian Evans - Executive Business Personal Coaching - Los Angeles - The Listening Conversation

“Being a good listener is absolutely critical to being a good leader.”

~ Sir Richard Branson, CEO Virgin Group

As an executive coach, I’m frequently asked, “what is the most important skill that I can have to lead my organization?” While I can’t identify one paramount skill—more essential is to have a complimentary suite of leadership skills in order to lead—one of the most important is active listening.

While each of us listens, the effective leader practices and cultivates active listening—a process by which (s)he is dynamically engaged with the person with whom they are speaking, rather than waiting for a pause so as to interject their point of view. Actively listening to the members of your teams is a great way to identify undiscovered opportunities or underutilized assets, thereby creating greater impact.

What to Do When You Don't Agree?

Most leaders are dedicated to being good listeners. But what if you are triggered by the person you are speaking with or the topic you are discussing? What happens then?

The difficulty in most conversations is that:

  • For many people a gap occurs when they, (1) don’t understand, or (2) don’t agree with the person with whom they are in conversation, and

  • When this gap occurs, many stop listening and drop into fight or flight – their filters go up and they focus on their reasons for disagreement, make a value judgment about the other person (“I don’t like them”), begin to create counter-arguments, or emotionally check out of the conversation.

While fight or flight might seem like your only choices between two bad options when you are triggered in a conversation, neither option will make you a better leader. Instead, effective leaders learn to practice a third option—sitting in The Listening Conversation.

The Listening Conversation

Effective listening is not passive. It is an active conversation between two or more parties. Many leaders mistakenly believe that listening is one-dimensional—speak and respond. However, it’s more accurate to characterize listening as multi-dimensional.

In a Listening Conversation, there are 4 distinct elements:

  1. What’s Spoken

  2. What’s Heard

  3. What’s Communicated (non-verbal; body language; somatic clues)

  4. What’s Perceived (filtered/influences by opinions, biases, judgments, life experiences operating in blind spots)

In the Listening Conversation, you are open to hearing the other person’s true intentions, thoughts, and concerns, and respond in kind, so that they walk away feeling heard. By doing so, you build bridges instead of burning bridges.

And, if both parties walk away still disagreeing, you have communicated in a way that allows the other to leave with a feeling of your willingness, not your againstness—even if you have not changed your position at all.

Your ability to effectively lead, collaborate, and diminish internal stress reactions will increase the more that you can sit in your Listening Conversations without judgment. The result will be more productive, empowered and satisfied team members who feel heard and valued, and greater organizational effectiveness under your leadership.

STRATEGIC PRACTICES – Strengthening Your Listening (and Leadership) Skills

Just because fight or flight is the practiced reaction doesn't mean that it has to continue. As a leader, you have the power to respond (rather than react) by staying present in the Listening Conversation

How do you stay present when feeling triggered? Utilize these practices:

  • Cultivate the practice of listening to what the other person is saying without planning your response and waiting to jump in and fire back

  • As a moment-to-moment mindfulness practice when in conversation, internally ask yourself, "Am I listening?" Simply turn your attention back if you've wandered into planning your response

  • Use collaborative language to remain engaged and engage others, “Let’s see what ideas we can create together…”

  • Silently remind yourself, “keep listening” when you feel the desire to react or “leave” the conversation with someone you don’t understand or agree with

Begin to integrate “Listening Language” into your conversations:

  • Seek first to understand: “I want to understand what’s important about what you are sharing with me…”

  • Active listening: “I’m curious, tell me more, why you thought XXX would be a good idea?”

  • Valuing: “Thank you for telling me, I hadn’t thought of some of those points.”

  • Bridging (de-escalating conflict via collaborative questions): “I’d like to see if we can work together to resolve this and create an understanding moving forward. What if we looked at this from a different perspective and see if we can find a solution that works for both of us?”

Remember, you are under no obligation to agree with or like the comments of another in a conversation. As a leader, however, your do have a responsibility to remain engaged with your teams so that they walk away heard and valued, even if your position has not changed.


To learn more about The Listening Conversation, and explore other strategies leading to more productive teams, increased impact, and greater organizational effectiveness under your leadership, contact me to schedule a complimentary conversation about executive coaching.

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