Tag Archive for listen

Are You Listening?


Have you ever noticed how, when you become aware of something, you seem to notice it everywhere? For example, it seems like every time we have purchased a car, I have suddenly seen the same car everyplace I would go, even though I hadn’t noticed it before (Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons talk about the same thing in The Invisible Gorilla). Recently, I have had the same experience with an idea (rather than with a tangible object, like a car).

I had been reading Mindset, by Carol Dweck, on the effect of growth vs. fixed mindsets on how people respond to life, while also spending some time in the book of Proverbs, in which several similar verses on listening to counsel had caught my attention. This was happening in the context of my first year in a new job, and the combination of these things coalesced together to remind me the value and importance of listening to wise counsel.

The book explained that a growth mindset is willing to listen and grow from adversity and challenge, while a fixed mindset does not, which has a direct impact on learning, growth, and change. The verses in Proverbs included 11:14 (“Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety”), 15:22 (“Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established”), and 15:31 (“The ear that hears the rebukes of life will abide among the wise”). Meanwhile, in my new job, I was intentionally asking questions and listening to others who had expertise and information that I needed.

When I realized the theme idea that I was seeing everywhere – seeking counsel, listening, and being teachable – it caused me to stop and think about how well I was doing with this, and it reminded me of a particular story that took place in I Kings 12. The story describes what happened when Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, became King after Solomon died.

Almost immediately after he was crowned, another man (Jeroboam) came to Rehoboam with a representative group of Israelites to ask for a change in their workload from what Solomon had demanded of them. At this point in the story, there is no indication of whether or not their complaint and this request was appropriate or valid. We only know that the question was asked, and Rehoboam’s response initially seems to be a very good one – he asks them to come back in three days, so that he can take the time to figure out the best answer. There’s lots of room for biblical wisdom in this response, like taking time to gather all the information before responding, or counting the cost before making a decision.

Then he continues to show good judgment by calling together the elders, those with experience and wisdom who knew the history and the culture, to ask their advice on what to do. Their counsel: it was a valid request, and furthermore, if he would respond in the right way, with compassion and fairness, he would earn their loyalty and trust.

That’s when he takes a wrong turn. 2 Kings 12:8 informs us that after he left that meeting, he rejected their counsel, and turned to another group, “the young men who had grown up with him,” to hear their thoughts. Sadly, their counsel was to show the people that he meant business, to put them in their place, and to make their work harder. Rehoboam listened to the foolish advice of his friends, and the result was revolt, conflict, and corruption for the next two decades.

The lesson is obvious and simple – listen to wise counsel. The danger, however, is in where you seek that counsel. Proverbs makes it clear that there is much wisdom in seeking counsel, and doing so will increase the likelihood of successful plans.   However, Proverbs 13:20 also says, “he who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed,” so it does matter where that counsel comes from. You will perform better, you will be better, and you will lead better when you listen to good counsel. Therefore, be intentional about seeking counsel, and especially about seeking it from people with wisdom. Identify those people around you, people who have experience and history and cultural context and biblical wisdom, and go after their input. Ask questions, get feedback, and listen. If you do so, you will be a far better leader. Just listen and learn.


You Need to Know Your Culture

When I first began teaching, I was young and inexperienced, but I was also enthusiastic and visionary. I had great dreams and optimistic ideas about how I was going to teach my subject and impact the lives of my students. But because of my inexperience, it was also easy for me to accept and embrace the culture in which I worked. There were others that knew so much more than me, from whom I wanted to learn, and because I was willing to listen and learn, I was also willing to blend with the culture they represented.


Over the next couple of years, though, I began to recognize that there was a battle of cultures taking place between three subgroups, and the resulting tension was causing conflict and turmoil. As I began to grow and mature as a teacher and as a leader, I began to incorporate intentional behaviors and choices in an effort to help influence the culture into what I believed was the best direction for the school. I experienced challenges, obstacles, and frustration, but I was not working in isolation, and over time I was blessed to observe positive change, resulting in a much stronger academic and spiritual culture. After several years, the culture had unified and transformed into a healthy – and growing – environment.


However, one of my personal crashes came when I left that environment to accept the leadership role of headmaster in another school. As I entered the new environment, I fully expected to simply transplant the wonderful culture I had just left into this new school, and then the new school would be just like the old one. I immediately tried to connect with students in the same way, and tried to implement the same ideas and principles in the same way. As you might expect, in a very short time and after several conflicts, I began to realize that I was in a different place with a different culture, and I had not been learning to operate within and manage that culture; rather, I was trying to impose cultural norms that didn’t fit. It was out of this experience that I learned that before I could shape culture in an organization, I first had to understand it.


This truth is addressed quite extensively by Edgar Schein in Organizational Culture and Leadership (2010), in which he defines the culture of a group as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems” (p. 18). The reality is that every organization has developed its own culture, its own way of doing things, its own understanding of what matters to the organization and to the members of that organization. It is often imbedded in the environment, and in many ways is an unconscious thought process that drives behavior, as well as intentional choices of actions and words.


Therefore, before any leader can play an influential role in shaping, modifying, or changing that culture, he or she must first understand it. Schein reinforces this idea when he goes on to say, “The bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are imbedded, those cultures will manage them. Cultural understanding is desirable for all of us, but it is essential to leaders if they are to lead” (p. 22). Culture can be both functional and dysfunctional, but generally, if it is not intentionally managed, it is much more likely to become dysfunctional. It is therefore the responsibility of the leader to observe and understand the existing culture, identifying the positive and negative aspects and learning the core values that matter to the people involved. It is only after understanding, that the leader can take steps to shape the culture into one that is most healthy and productive for the organization. Essentially, you must know your culture before you can lead it well.


I learned this lesson the hard way, which resulted in conflict and failure from which I had to recover, which made my job of leadership more difficult than it should have been. But since then, in three other schools, I have been very careful to first take time to understand the culture in which I function. This time, in these situations, I have found that I have been able to connect with and relate to people much better, have been accepted much sooner, and have been more effectively able to win trust, which in turn has given me the credibility and respect to positively influence culture.


The lesson is simple: know your culture. Take the time to understand where you are, the history of your organization, the factors that have shaped and influenced its members, and the values that really matter. When you do, because you understand, you will be a better leader.

Take the Time to Listen First

Early in my experience as an educator, I heard my administrator say to parents (tongue-in-cheek), “If you don’t believe half of what your students say happened in the classroom, we won’t believe half of what they tell us happened at home.” Like many humorous comments, this contains a morsel of truth. People have a tendency to represent facts in such a way as to paint themselves in the best possible light, and children are no different. Often over the years, I have fielded phone calls from parents who were contacting me because of what their child said happened in class (things like, “my child told me that the teacher said this in class!”). I quickly learned to redirect their concern to the teacher, so that the parent could hear the whole story. Nearly every time, the parent has come back to me and said, “Now that I have the whole story, it makes a lot more sense.” (And most of the time, the story the child told at home was an effort to cover up or misdirect from wrong choices of behavior made by the student in the classroom.)

There are two particular passages in Scripture that have greatly helped me to understand this idea. One is Proverbs 18:13, which says, “He who answers a matter before he hears the facts—it is folly and shame to him” (Amplified Bible). The Message says it even more plainly: “Answering before listening is both stupid and rude.” This verse was first shared with me by a professor when I completing a marriage and family counseling internship, as an exhortation to probe and question thoroughly before drawing conclusions in the counseling setting. For quite a while, I literally kept the verse written on a notecard, taped on top of my desk, as a reminder. I have since learned that this verse applies to many circumstances, not just to a counseling session. When you deal with people (and most of us do), you will have the experience of people telling you the story from their own perspective, which will likely mean that it may or may not be true. It is foolish and stupid to react or respond without first getting the whole story

The second verse is James 1:19, which says, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” As many grandparents have shared with their grandchildren, “there’s a reason why God gave us two ears and one mouth; we should listen twice as much as we speak!” This verse has been a constant reminder to me to be careful to listen first, although in the process of my growth as a leader, it was a lesson that sometimes came the hard way.

In one particular organization in which I worked, I made a spectacular blunder that loudly and clearly drove this lesson home to me. I was leading a small group of event planners in planning for one specific event, and everyone in the group (except me) had been involved in that organization for several years. As the leader, I felt that I should take charge of presenting good ideas, so I began the first meeting by telling the rest of the group all of my ideas. My enthusiasm (combined with the fact that I had not yet established trust or relationship) resulted in the rest of the group shutting down while giving verbal support to my ideas. However, over the next few days I began to hear from others that the entire committee was frustrated with me, and the event was now in jeopardy. I had to go back to the committee and apologize for speaking without listening, and then I had to make it safe for them to talk. When I did that, I learned about the history and tradition associated with that event, and could see that I had been on the verge of causing damage to the culture. I needed to take the time to listen, understand history, and get the whole story.

The added bonus of this lesson is that when you take time to learn the whole story, you are much more likely to be able to discern what is true and what is not. In Deuteronomy 18:21-22, Moses provided some direction to the people of Israel to help them understand how to discern this, when he said, “21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” He made the point that if you take the time to observe and get the whole story, beginning to end, you can tell if it is truth or not.

It is easy for a leader to assume that leadership means taking charge and giving direction. However, I believe that these principles from Scripture give us a very different picture: leadership should be characterized by listening. Ask questions. Make it safe for people to share. Validate. And make sure you get the whole story before you react.


Quotable (Jeff McMaster, on becoming a better listener)

“Learn to listen with your eyes by observing, learn to listen with your mouth by rephrasing and asking questions, and learn to listen with your ears by setting aside your own interests and hearing the meaning of others’ words. Be a better listener and you will be a better leader.”


Dr. Jeffrey S. McMaster, Be a Better Listener

Be a Better Listener

In the New York Times Best Seller The Art of Racing in the Rain (2008), author Garth Stein tells a fictional story of the life of a race car driver, Denny, as seen through the eyes of his dog, Enzo. At one particular point in the story, when Denny is experiencing great difficulty, Enzo shares this thought: “I listen. I cannot speak, so I listen very well. I never interrupt. I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own. People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another’s conversations constantly. It’s like having a passenger in your car who suddenly grabs the steering wheel and turns you down a side street.” (p. 101). Remarkable insight from a dog, but so often it is true.

I would guess that most people understand communication is two-way street, involving both talking and listening, but I would also guess that most people do far more talking than listening. Unlike Enzo, we don’t do such a good job of listening, and at those times when we do appear to be listening, we are probably guiltier of thinking about what we are going to say next than thinking about what the other person is saying. The unfortunate result is that we do not communicate well, our relationships suffer, and we are not as effective as leaders.

One of the skills, then, that is necessary for effective leadership (and for healthy relationships) is the ability to listen well. In short, we need to be good listeners. In an article published on LinkedIn on February 2, 2015, called “Best Advice: Listen More than You Talk,” Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, echoed this truth when he wrote that one of the “best and most simple pieces of advice” he ever received came from his father: “listen more than you talk.”

Learning to listen well, though, requires effort, because it involves much more than simply hearing the words that the other person is saying. It involves understanding the idea and intent, the meaning, of what the other person is communicating. Usually, however, the problem we have is that our own tendency toward selfishness and our own perceptions and experiences interfere with our ability to hear what the other person is communicating, therefore we have to become intentional about learning to listen, and this means much more than just listening with our ears.

I realize this may sound a little odd, but one way in which listening happens is with your eyes. In reality, people do a lot of communicating with facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language, and so the implication is that much of what you hear people say comes from what you see. For that reason, you need to become very intentional about looking around and observing as part of your listening process. When you are face-to-face with someone, engaged in dialogue, you must consciously become aware of what they are saying with nonverbal cues, thereby more clearly hearing what they are trying to communicate; however, I would suggest you also need to do the same when you are observing from a distance, when you are not directly interacting, but instead are watching or noticing the behavior and actions of those around you. Your understanding will improve if you take time to look around and listen to what you see.

The caution here, though, is that if you are not careful, it is quite easy to only see what you are looking for, and to not see what you are not looking for. On the one hand, if we don’t acknowledge and avoid a preconceived perception about what think we will see when we look, then we will tend to only see those things that reinforce that perception, therefore confirming our belief that it is true, even if it is not. On the other hand, we also tend to miss a lot of what is right in front of us, primarily because we are not looking for it, and therefore will not see important clues and information that we need to see. The conclusion, then, is that we must intentionally set aside our perceptions, and must put in conscious effort to see things that we are not looking for, in order to become more effective in our leadership.

A second way in which listening happenings is with your mouth. This does not happen in the same way that you listen with your eyes, because your mouth does not generally take in information to enhance your understanding in the way that your eyes do (to state the obvious). What your mouth does, however, is provide feedback and response that reflects your listening. Your mouth is the vehicle through which you mirror what you hear, and so it communicates how you are listening.

How, then, does this happen? Primarily two ways: rephrasing, and asking questions. First, as you listen to someone speak (or as you observe activity, behavior, and responses), you need to give back a rephrasing of what you think you hear (and see). This communicates that you are trying to listen, but it also gives you the opportunity to validate and refine what you think you hear, by giving and then receiving additional feedback. Second, ask open-ended and clarifying questions that help you to have a deeper and more accurate understanding of what you hear – also known as active listening – which gives you a better grasp of what others (namely, your peers and your subordinates) are experiencing and feeling. This will better enable you to respond to what you hear (and see), which – again – will help you to be a more effective leader. One extremely important caveat, though, is this: when you ask questions, you must ensure that it is safe for people to answer; otherwise you will not get the kind of feedback you need.

Finally, and most obviously, listening does happen with your ears. In the book Quiet (2012), Susan Cain discusses implications of introverted personality tendencies for leadership, and applies it to a lesson on listening when she shares the experience of a sales person who states, “In sales there’s a truism that ‘we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionately.’ I believe that’s what makes someone really good at selling or consulting – the number one thing is they’ve got to really listen well” (p. 240). What this really means is that we need to close our mouths and let others say what they need to say, and we actually need to be attentive to what they say. We need to follow Enzo’s counsel of not interrupting, or not taking over or sidetracking the conversation, but rather consciously hearing the words, the meaning, and the heart of what others are saying.

In essence, an effective leader needs to be an effective listener, and that requires intentional effort and discipline. Learn to listen with your eyes by observing, learn to listen with your mouth by rephrasing and asking questions, and learn to listen with your ears by setting aside your own interests and hearing the meaning of others’ words. Be a better listener and you will be a better leader.

Give People a Voice

There was a time when leadership was viewed as an authoritative role that looked something like this:  I am in charge, I know what needs to be done, I tell you what to do, and you do it.  The assumption was that the leader was the one who really knew what was best, so he talked and the followers listened.  Classrooms used to operate the same way, when teachers would lecture and students would listen and take notes; but it was a very one-sided dialogue.  Studies of leadership now recognize that this is not effective leadership, and that now we need to be willing to give people a voice in the process.  Heifetz and Laurie found that “giving a voice to all people is the foundation of an organization that is willing to experiment and learn” (p. 69). However, that doesn’t mean that it’s no longer a struggle for us to do, and so it is still something that we need to intentionally cultivate in ourselves and in our leadership.

A couple of important concepts have helped me to recognize this truth.  One was the realization that many people know much more than I do about many things, and there are many things that others can do better than I. I don’t know everything, and I am not the most skilled at everything.  Therefore, I can be more effective when I tap into the knowledge and skills of others, but that, in turn, means giving them an opportunity to contribute.  A second truth was the realization that those who are closest to a situation – those on the ground floor – generally have the greatest understanding of what is taking place.  The people actually doing the job often have the best understanding of what works and what does not.  The result, then, is that I have learned that I need to give people a voice, especially in the process of implementing change.  If people are given the ability to speak into the process, they will in turn take more ownership of it and will be more involved and more committed.

So, knowing that we need to give people a voice, there are at least three principles that are necessary in order for it to successfully begin to happen:

1)    Include those who will be impacted.  This may include those who will be affected by the results of the change (like customers), those who have to implement the change (like the ground-floor employees), those who have to lead the change (like the managers), and those who are working to determine and design the change (like the leadership).  All of them will be affected in some way by decisions and change, so if they are not given an opportunity to speak or contribute, they are much more like to resist and react.  As Peter Drucker explains, “Effective executives make sure that both their action plans and their information needs are understood.  Specifically, this means that they share their plans with and ask for comments from their colleagues – superiors, subordinates, and peers” (p. 31).  It is dangerous to leadership to impose a strategic plan or to implement initiatives without first giving all of those groups a voice in the process.

2)    Make it safe for people to talk. Years ago, when my children were little, I learned that one of the best things that parents could do to encourage stronger communication from their children in the teenage years was to make it safe for them to talk. If I react harshly, or with ridicule or condemnation, they will learn that it is not safe to share, and will shut down.  The same thing happens in our organizations if we respond negatively when others try to give input.  We need to remember that “the voices from below are usually not as articulate as one would wish, . . . [but] buried inside a poorly packaged interjection may lie an important intuition that needs to be teased out and considered. To toss it out for its bad timing, lack of clarity or seemingly unreasonableness is to lose potentially valuable information and discourage a potential leader in the organization” (Heifetz & Laurie, p. 69).  It is therefore the responsibility of the leader to create a safe environment “for diverse groups to talk to one another about the challenges facing them, to frame and debate issues, and to clarify the assumptions behind competing perspectives and values” (Heifetz & Laurie, p. 64).  If it is not safe to speak, they won’t.

3)    Listen and validate.  My wife has the gift of empathy, but I do not, and so over the years she has helped me to learn how important it is to make people feel validated.  I have realized, by putting it into practice, that when people feel validated, they are much more receptive; and, vice versa, when they don’t feel validated, they are much more defensive.  As Seth Godin says in Tribes, “People want to be sure you heard what they said – they’re less focused on whether or not you do what they said” (2008, p. 128). It is not enough to simply listen, but I must also include a response that makes people feel heard and understood.  This means, “listening with the intention of genuinely understanding the thoughts and feelings of the speaker . . . [therefore], spend time trying to understand others’ perspectives, listening with an open mind and without judgment” (Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, and Senge, pp. 185-186).

I will be a more effective leader when others are able to contribute.  They will bring knowledge, experience, different perspectives, important questions, and an understanding of real-life implications, and so it makes sense that they need to be allowed and encouraged to speak up.  Therefore they need to have a voice.  And for them to have voice, I have to provide an environment that lets it happen.  Include them.  Make it safe.  Listen and validate what they have to say. Give people a voice.

(Look for more thoughts on this in an upcoming Leadership Lessons from the Bible post later this month, taken out of an example from the leadership of Ezra)

Ancona, D., Malone, T. W., Orlikowski, W. J., and Senge, P. M. (2011). “In Praise of the Incomplete Leaders,” HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Drucker, P. F. (2011). “What Makes an Effective Executive,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Godin, S. (2008). Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us. Portfolio: New York, NY.

Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (2011). “The Work of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.