Becoming a Listening Leader

It’s not uncommon to take a course in college that teaches us how to talk. There are classes that teach us to communicate, preach, debate and market. All of these courses can be valuable, and they can help us deliberately craft a message that inspires and impacts. That’s a critical function of leadership.

If you can’t inspire people, you’ll struggle to get them to follow you. Unfortunately, that’s only half of the communication equation in leadership. The other half is listening, and we rarely take a class in college (or anywhere, for that matter) that teaches us how to listen.

Any leadership role, in any channel of culture, involves more than talking. Yes, if you’re a pastor, you have to cast vision, preach sermons, train leaders, lead meetings, and connect with people … all of which require talking. However, equally important — and probably more so — is the need to listen.

Listening is what gives weight to a leader’s words. That might sound contradictory, so let me explain what I mean. If you talk too much and listen too little, you’ll have nothing worth saying. Why? Because you’ll be more concerned about what you say than what the person listening needs to hear. And the only way you can know what the other person needs to hear is if you listen to what he or she has to say.

Again, your words have weight. When you say the wrong thing, your words carry the weight of frustration and division. When you speak wisely, your words carry the weight of moral authority and inspiration. The only way to choose the right words is to listen carefully. Listening informs your talking.

Proverbs 18:13 says, “To answer before listening — that is folly and shame.” Apply those words to the communication aspects of leadership:

  • To cast vision before listening — that is folly and shame.
  • To counsel before listening — that is folly and shame.
  • To lead meetings before listening — that is folly and shame.

Listening tells the leader what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. Last year, we launched a major vision initiative at 7 City Church. Over a six-week period, I met one-on-one with dozens of people, casting vision and challenging them to participate. It would have been easy to do all the talking in those meetings, but it wouldn’t have been helpful.

If you talk too much and listen too little, you’ll have nothing worth saying.

It was important for me to share the vision, but it was equally important for me to take time to listen to questions. When people receive answers to their questions, buy-in to the vision usually increases.

Unfortunately, it’s during the question-asking that leaders often become defensive. Please hear this: Asking questions is not a sign of disloyalty; it’s a sign of wisdom. People want to be a part of a bright, bold future, but to join you in the journey toward that future, they need understanding (which happens by asking questions).

Unanswered questions lead to unhealthy assumptions, but when people can ask questions and acquire understanding, they will often make sacrifices to help the vision become a reality.

I was recently in a meeting with a group of leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds, organizations and life experiences. These were sharp people who desired to make a meaningful contribution.

But as I sat in the meeting, I made an observation: The people who talked the most had the least to say. The more they spoke, the less credible they became. In fact, at times they became rather annoying. Proverbs 18:2 says, “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.”

In that same meeting, there were people who said very little. But when they did speak, their words were draped with wisdom. Their words had weight because they chose to listen before airing an opinion. One of the pioneering voices in servant-leadership, Robert Greenleaf, said, “From listening comes wisdom, from speaking comes repentance.”

So, how do you become a listening leader? Begin by following these three guidelines:

1. Double your questions. Go into a meeting or conversation with the questions you want to ask, rather than the opinions you want to express — then double the number of questions. Not only will you glean more wisdom, but you’ll also make others feel heard and valued.

2. Be selective, not reactive. Too often, the words we speak are a reaction to the words somebody else has said. If you have to respond or react to everyone else, you’ll dominate the conversation and become an annoyance. Be selective with your words, choosing only to speak when it will be most beneficial for others.

3. Engage the listening compass. The best listeners pay attention to the four points of the listening compass: words (what’s being said), emotions (how it’s being said), body language (what’s not being said), and reflection (echoing back to the speaker what they said).

How would you score yourself, on a scale from 1 to 10, as a listening leader? What would it take to bump up your score by 2 points?

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