Listen hard, even to what they are not saying

Watching a TED talk on listening by William Ury has reinforced something I realised a few years ago which is crucial for successfully leading others. That is that you need to listen. Really hard. Especially to the things they are not saying.

It’s a position I came to after I’d had problems with a member of the team. Basically, it came down to not understanding each other and having a difference of approach. This individual (who we shall call Abby) wanted to get involved with drafting consultation responses within the policy and research team which I led. Of course, I was happy for Abby to get involved and duly provided the details of an open consultation that we needed to respond to so that she could get started.

When I fed back on the draft, I added thoughts and comments for consideration in the way that I did for all of the team. This appeared to create a block which meant the second draft was slow to materialise. Abby didn’t explain to me why there was a problem but in listening extra hard to what she was saying to me and considering what might be creating a difficulty, I came to the conclusion that the way I provided feedback on the draft confused her. After that, I changed my approach, ensuring that it was clear what she needed to do rather than providing a challenge and allowing her to decide how to address it.

So it was then I realised the importance of listening. To the words, to the body language and to the underlying messages. Even the silence tells you something if you really want to hear it.

The next thing I learnt which is equally important, is that when we listen, we should listen to understand. That might sound obvious but actually, most of the time, we listen to respond. So often we’re not really listening at all but while someone is speaking to us, we are thinking about what we are going to say next. When we stop listening to respond and start listening to understand, we begin really listening. This approach requires us to ask questions about what is being said so that we can understand it fully. Ultimately, when we do this, the speaker feels like you care about what they are saying and that you have made the effort to understand.

On a training course once, I remember being asked to practice active listening and finding that it is a really difficult thing to do. We think that listening comes naturally but in fact, it’s something that really needs practice. For me it’s been a technique that I have tried to adopt. It doesn’t come naturally, it’s something I have to practice on a daily basis. As Ury says in his talk, listening is crucial for relationships and is the reason that many break down. Often we say it’s because we didn’t talk but more to the point, it’s that we didn’t listen properly. He asks ‘if we listened more what difference would it make?’. So that’s the challenge for us all as leaders (and for all relationships). Practice the art of listening and enjoy the benefits I know it will bring for you.

The full video of The Power of Listening, by William Ury for TEDx San Diego is available here:


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