Learning to Lead Through Better Listening

From Ari’s Top 5

Meaningfully taking in the sounds that surround us

Last week I wrote about the power of language in our organizational ecosystems, and how the words we choose to use impact everything around us, both for better, and/or for worse. What follows is a continuation of the conversation—a look at the importance of good listening skills in our workplaces. After all, even the most eloquently composed and carefully chosen language is only of minimal value without another person to take in and process what is being said. As David Whyte writes, “For poetry to be poetry there must be a listener as well as a speaker.” Like compassion, kindness, and collaboration, the concept of better listening is hardly controversial, and yet, effective listening remains a remarkably uncommon skill. The late George Orwell, whose writing I referenced a lot last week on the subject of language, said, “Our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have.” And the better we learn to listen, the more effectively we can make Orwell’s charge into our everyday reality.

Being a better listener is, like so many things in life, much easier advocated than it is accomplished. Like any other skill, it’s easier to do when we grow up practicing it. I admire the mother of writer Jason Reynolds who, as Reynolds shares his story, seems to have done such a wonderful job of encouraging him to share his thoughts and feelings as a young boy. She taught him to first find the right language to constructively speak his mind (even when he disagreed with her), and then to listen well. I grew up with any number of middle-class advantages, but good listening practices were not one of them. While it was certainly intellectually encouraged, effective listening was only minimally practiced in daily life.

In fact, I can see now, we learned all the things good listeners are advised against: don’t hesitate to start speaking your mind while others are still sharing their thoughts, intersperse an abundance of eye rolls, and liberally insert sarcasm to spice up the conversation. If the volume went up over dinner, we learned to just talk louder. Arguments were being formed the minute the other person opened their mouth (or maybe even before). None of this was done out of malice—it was the way people showed that they were “paying attention” to you. In fact, in my family, the only time people weren’t cutting you off was probably when they weren’t listening. It is, I’m sure, simply how my parents and grandparents were also raised. I know from listening to others’ origin stories over the years, I’m hardly the only one who grew up this way.

Ineffective listening—and its corollary, ineffective language—are so much the norm in the world, that their absences are easily missed. John O’Donohue, as he so often does, asks the poignant question, one that we might all ask ourselves regularly:

When is the last time that you had a great conversation, a conversation which wasn’t just two intersecting monologues, which is what passes for conversation a lot in this culture? But when had you last a great conversation, in which you overheard yourself saying things that you never knew you knew, that you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you’d thought you had lost, and a sense of an event of a conversation that brought the two of you onto a different plane, and then, fourthly, a conversation that continued to sing in your mind for weeks afterwards?

While my family’s pattern of “conversation” was well accepted by us, it’s anything but effective in most group settings. I will be “in recovery” from this style of conversation for the rest of my life. In the meantime, I try to apologize, as I have many times over the years, to everyone I’ve unthinkingly cut off in conversation. My intentions are positive, even though when I slip, I can still cause problems. When I get impatient with my seeming inability to self-manage, I try to take a couple deep breaths and go back to Edgar Schein’s wise observation that “Learning new things is easy when there is no unlearning involved.” I guess the good news is that a) I know full well that I still fall short, and b) I continue to try to get better anyway! And as Jason Reynolds writes, “You can’t run away from who you are, but what you can do is run toward who you want to be.”

Part of my (and maybe your) challenge is summed up well by Dr. Harriet Lerner, whose work on anger, apology, and forgiveness has been so hugely helpful to me:

It’s easy to listen if we like what the other person is saying. However, we don’t listen well when we’re under fire because we are hard wired for defensiveness. … When we listen defensively, we automatically listen for what we don’t agree with. We listen for the exaggerations, errors and distortions that will inevitably be there. … Let’s face it. Almost all of us are more invested in improving our talking skills than in improving our listening skills. Our desire to be understood is far stronger than our desire to understand the other person.

Brenda Ueland is someone who seems to have moved effectively past those problems. Born in the fall of 1891 in Minneapolis, she was the third of seven kids in a family with roots in Norway. (Next week marks the 37th anniversary of Ueland’s death at the age of 93, in 1985.) Ueland’s father was a progressive attorney and her mother a suffragette, and Ueland herself was actively engaged with the cause of women’s rights throughout her life. Ueland graduated from Barnard in 1913, then lived in Greenwich Village, where she hung out with folks like Emma Goldman, Louise Bryant, and John Reed. In 1930, Ueland moved back to Minneapolis, where she worked as a columnist, was an advocate for animal rights, and became an avid walker—“For me,” she said, “a long five- or six-mile walk helps. And one must go alone and every day.” In 1938, Ueland published If You Want to Write, which I read nearly half a century later, early in my own writing work. Ueland’s lessons changed my life.

Although it’s much less well known, Ueland also published a hugely helpful essay, entitled, “Tell Me More: The Fine Art of Listening.” Like her book on writing, it’s an inspiration, filled with practical tips on how to listen attentively. Ueland states the case for listening quite well:

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force … When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. … It makes people happy and free when they are listened to.

Learning to listen, I’ve come to understand from Brenda Ueland and others who are patient enough to teach me, is something that all of us are capable of doing. Like so many other things that we know are good for us but don’t take time to practice, few of us consistently get it right. As Krista Tippett says, “Listening is not something that we do all the time. It’s work. It’s a commitment.” There are a thousand easily available resources on how to effectively make that commitment, and then practice good listening skills. We could, if we want, take to heart the example set for us by acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton who had a life changing crisis of conscience in his late 20s, from which he emerged with a new career path and a life’s purpose: “To become a better listener.”

To help me organize my approach to being a more effective listener, I’ve broken things out into six broad categories. All are of importance, and each overlaps, and feeds into, the others.

Listening to others

Learning to sit quietly, and to pay close attention, is something I know I will be working to get better at for the rest of my life. Allowing myself time for reflection gives me the mental space to respond with appropriate attention. Getting myself into a good, grounded place before the conversation/meeting begins can be helpful. Setting my intention—knowing how I would like to impact the other person, as I learned from my friend Anese Cavanaugh—makes a big difference. It’s also about managing my energy and having a grounded, supportive, presence (of the sort Jason Reynolds seems to have gotten from his mother) as well. And, over time, learning the style in which different people want to be listened to—each of us has our own way of wanting to be heard.

To increase my own focus at times where I feel myself getting argumentative in a meeting, I will put myself into what I think of as “writer mode,” taking careful notes so that I can later go back and describe with feeling what happened. Asking to “take five” when I feel myself getting reactive also helps. I like to remind myself of the lesson historian Robin D.G. Kelley shared from his conversations with musician Thelonious Monk:

What he was trying to tell me was first of all, don’t be judgmental of anybody else, just listen and pay attention and look for the beauty. And then when you find the beauty, study that and don’t bother with the rest of it.

Starting with positive beliefs helps a lot; if I assume from the start that everyone is trying to do their best and has good intentions, it helps me to notice the nuance, to listen for emotional openings in the conversation that can help me bring empathy, compassion, and kindness. When all else is said and done, at its simplest and most straightforward, I will try to stick with what Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen recommends: “Listen generously.”

Brenda Ueland offers some additional advice:

In order to listen, here are some suggestions: Try to learn tranquility, to live in the present a part of the time every day. Sometimes say to yourself: “Now. What is happening now? This friend is talking. I am quiet. There is endless time. I hear it, every word.” Then suddenly you begin to hear not only what people are saying, but also what they are trying to say, and you sense the whole truth about them. And you sense existence, not piecemeal, not this object and that, but as a translucent whole. … Then watch your self-assertiveness. And give it up. Remember, it is not enough just to will to listen to people. One must really listen. Only then does the magic begin.

Listening to our soul

I wrote a bunch about the importance of soul—both organizationally and individually—a few weeks back, equating it in the ecosystem metaphor to the moon. It quietly pulls at us, often when we’re barely even paying attention. Learning to intuit our life’s path, to find our long-term vocation, and to envision and live a meaningful future for ourselves happens when we honor the pull of our spirit. As John O’Donohue writes, “All holiness is about learning to hear the voice of your soul. It is always there and the more deeply you listen, the greater the surprises and discoveries that will unfold.”

I was reminded of this driving home the other evening looking at the magnificence of the moon rising in the east. I’d been working on this essay all day—the connection was a clear reminder: we need to learn to listen closely to what’s in our soul. The “hot pen” technique for writing a vision is a very effective way to access this. It helps us avoid the tendency to overthink our options, and instead to tap into a more soulful existence. As natural farmer Masanobu Fukuoka says, “In the end, the true essence of the moon is more clearly seen through the eyes of a child.”

Listening to ourselves

While our soul may guide us towards big picture clarity, we are also experiencing daily swings in emotions, the challenge of difficult decisions, struggles in our relationships, lack of resources, and much more. Listening to ourselves—understanding what causes us anxiety, what increases joy, what angers us, etc.—is an essential component of being able to listen to other people. When we’re not in tune with ourselves, more often than not, we will eventually tune out others around us. As Masanobu Fukuoka writes, “Just as human beings do not know themselves, they cannot know the other.” Part 3 of the Guide to Good Leading series is all about this work of self-understanding and more effective self-management. So too are Secrets #40-43 about beliefs in Part 4. Additionally, the “This I Believe” exercise at the end of Secret #40 in Part 4, the essays about journaling and solitude in “Working Through Hard Times” would all be helpful as well!

Another piece of this work, one that I was raised with almost no understanding of, is learning to listen to our bodies. Lama Rod Owens writes, ​​“The body will always tell the story of our woundedness.” I’m still working to notice the signs that alert me to fear, the early onset of anger, and joyfulness, to name a few.

Listening to the silence

Silence is anything but the norm in modern society. Gordon Hempton describes it as a “think tank of the soul.” Therapy, as well as coaching on facilitation from folks like Stas’ Kazmierski, taught me to gradually get better at sitting with silence—those awkward pauses, after which, I learned, the “good stuff” often emerges. I’ve tried to train myself, too, to be better at listening to the pauses and hesitations, to listen “between the lines.”

Someone pointed out to me many years ago that the word “listen” is an anagram for “silent.” John O’Donohue says, “One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences. Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people.”

Tuhunnu and Pesio, a pair of creative musicians from the Solomon Islands, who are quoted in the beautiful book IR9 Indigenous & Black Wisdubs, say:

When you are quiet you are connected
Your silence brings out
Your self understanding that
You are part of the sacred world

It’s your silence that connects you to the sacred world.

Listening to nature

I would never have understood this growing up in Chicago; we had an urban existence in which expressways and asphalt were the norm, and nature was essentially an afterthought—related to weather forecasts, its impact on football games, and occasional trips to a “Forest Preserve.” I found a bit of comfort knowing I wasn’t alone in this; Masanobu Fukuoka shares, “The sad truth is that for much of my youth, I, too, felt estranged from nature. But now I just take a single flower in my hand and converse with it. I have finally learned that, although nature does not reach out to people directly, people can always approach nature and seek salvation that way.”

The crisis around climate change tells me that we are not collectively listening to nature very effectively. When I think of it in this sense, it’s pretty clear that nature is trying to tell us something. Here at Zingerman’s, I know, we need to continue to do better at reducing the size of our ecological footprint, since as Fukuoka warns, “Once the primal source of nature is destroyed, however, it will no longer be possible to restore itself.” The good news? “If humanity can regain its original kinship with nature, we should be able to live in peace and abundance.”

Listening to the stories we tell

The stories we share, and believe, are one of the quickest ways to learn about our beliefs and what we value (or look down on) in our culture and in our lives. I’ve learned so much over the last few years with the work we’ve done about beliefs to listen much more closely to these seemingly casual stories—they often seem insignificant, but they actually say a lot!

Learning to listen more effectively isn’t, to be certain, only about leadership. Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline appropriately encourages us to become learning organizations; maybe we can turn this learning here into “The Sixth Discipline,” and work to be “listening organizations.” Since our approach to Servant Leadership incorporates the 3 Steps to Great Service (and also our 5 Steps to Handling a Complaint) into the way we work with staff, listening work is incorporated there as well. Our diversity training and Courageous Conversations classes help too, and there’s more we can do. When we do learn to listen well, all sorts of things can come from it. Courtney Hartman has a beautiful new album out called Glade, a word she defines as “A natural opening or a passage made, a place left unfrozen, a gleam of light, a bright patch of sky, the space between clouds, a clearing.” All of which help me imagine what good listening might look—or sound—like in our organizational ecosystems.

Paul Hawken (whose book, Growing a Business was a big influence on me and Paul back when we opened in 1982) says, “When we listen to people, our language softens. Listening may be the cardinal act of giving … It is the source of peace.” While the words “hear” and “here” are not linked etymologically, it did strike me that what we hear when we listen has a huge impact on what we experience in the world around us—what we might call our “hear and now.” Good listening can, in small meaningful ways, make many positive differences. Organizations (and countries) in which good listening skills are practiced well are clearly calmer, gentler, kinder, more effective, and more peaceful places to be.

Having listened and read (which I’ve come to realize is essentially “listening on paper”) the thoughts of so many great teachers on this subject, it seems clear that learning, and then practicing, better listening skills is pretty much a no-lose proposition. David Isay, who started StoryCorps—he essentially listens for a living—says that learning to listen to more people, more meaningfully,

Has made me a much more hopeful person … we would be such a better and stronger country if we widened that out and listened to what the rest of us have to say and have learned in life. …

Was it worth the effort? Without hesitating, Isay says, yes:

It’s something you never regret.