Leadership Barometer 72 Listens Deeply

November 21, 2020

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. These are not good for diagnosing problems or specifying corrective action, but they can tell you where you stand quickly. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Listens Deeply

It is said that managers have the worst hearing in the world. Many employees lament that trying to talk to the boss is like trying to reason with a rock. Yet most managers would put “listening skills” as one of their stronger traits. How come there is often such a wide gap between perception and reality? I believe leaders do not recognize that listening is a very complicated and multi-step process that starts in the mind of the speaker. Here are the steps.

1. Speaker’s mind has a thought
2. Speaker translates the thought into words
3. Speaker says the words
4. Words are conveyed to the ear of the listener
5. Words are heard or not heard as sent
6. Tone of voice and body language of the speaker are factored in
7. The message that was heard is translated into thought
8. The thought is translated into the listener’s mind

If any one of those eight elements is corrupted in any way, then the message has not been received accurately. Of those eight steps, which ones cause the most trouble in communication? It is steps 5 and 6. Reason: While most people are “listening” they are actually occupying their mind preparing to speak. So what actually enters the ear is not what the listener actually believes has been said.

The interpretation of the tone of voice and body language is a huge area of miscommunication. With a slight movement of the eyebrows, mouth or a tilt of the head, the meaning of the entire message can be misinterpreted.

Why the problem happens

The culprit here is that we have a disconnect between how fast a person can talk versus how fast we can think. We can think many times faster then we can talk, so the brain has excess time to process other things while waiting for the words to arrive.

We actually multi-task, and our thoughts zoom in and out of the stream of words heading toward our ears. We believe that we have caught all of the content, but in reality we only grasp part of it because we are occupied thinking up our response or trying to interpret why the speakers pupils were dilated.

The best defense for poor listening habits is what is called “reflective listening” or sometimes called “active listening.” This is where we force our brain to slow down and focus on the incoming words in order to give the speaker visual and verbal cues that we really understood the message.

The art of reflective listening is an acquired skill, and it takes a lot of practice and effort to be good at it. If you doubt that, just try listening to someone for 5 minutes straight and concentrate on absorbing every word such that you can reflect small parts of the conversation throughout the 5 minutes. It is exhausting.

For leaders, the need for listening is even more of a challenge. We have to not only hear and interpret the words, we have to understand the full meaning. This means not only must we take in the verbal input but also properly interpret the vast amount of body language that comes along with it. Since there is more meaning in body language than in words, it makes listening an even more daunting task.

Most leaders do not take the time and energy to internalize what is being conveyed to them because they are so preoccupied with getting their message out to others. This leaves them totally vulnerable to misunderstandings that cripple the ability to build trust.

When you add the ego response which most leaders have an ample supply of, it is no wonder employees feel they are not being heard. James O’Toole had a great line for this in the book Transparency. He said, “…it is often the presence of excessive amounts of testosterone that leads to a loss of hearing.”



Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.


The 30-second e-mail

December 1, 2010

You know how it feels. You are grazing your bloated inbox, and you see the name, Sam Jones. You cringe. Having waded through his prior tomes, you know that opening this e-mail will tie you up for at least 15 minutes trying to get the message. Sam writes really l-o-n-g notes and rarely uses paragraph breaks. He does not capitalize the start of sentences, so his writing is hard to decode. You pause, and pass the note because there is just not enough time to deal with the hassle.

Don’t be a Sam Jones! Follow these seven simple rules, and people will appreciate your e-mail communications.

1. Make it easy on the reader. Have a well formatted and short note that deals with a single topic in compressed format. Don’t ramble!

2. Don’t go “over the horizon.” Try to have the majority of your notes fit into the first window of a note. Reason: when the reader can see the start of your signature block on the bottom of the opening window, he knows that is all there is to the note. That is a psychological lift that puts the reader in a better frame of mind to absorb your meaning. When the text goes beyond the first page (over the horizon), the reader has no way to know how long your note is. This is a psychological burden that frustrates the reader subconsciously.

3. Aim for 15 to 30 seconds. Try to have the e-mail compressed enough that it can be internalized in a half minute at the maximum. It will be remembered much more than one that takes 5 minutes to read.

4. Use bullet points. Short, punchy bullets are easier to read than long complex sentences.

5. Highlight expected actions. Delineate action items in a way that is not offensive. Do not use all caps. Sometimes bold text works, but I find it best to have a separate line like this:

       Action: Please get me your draft report by Friday.

6. Be polite. Start with a friendly greeting and end with respect but not long or trite quotations.

7. Sometimes the Subject can be the whole note. In this case use EOM (End Of Message) to designate there is no note to open at all. It looks like this:

       Subject: The Binford celebration is Wednesday 3 pm. EOM

If you follow these simple seven rules, people will pay more attention to your e-mails, and you will improve the hit rate of your communications. Not all notes can follow all of these rules, but if the majority of yours do, you will be greatly appreciated.