With this piece we kick off our series, Leading by Listening. In the coming months we will explore the important role that listening plays in an organizational context.

“…We are remembering that we are listening creatures and the world
that we have set up doesn’t make space to listen.”

Krista Tippett

Decisiveness, clarity of vision, the ability to inspire, excellent communication skills. These are some of the traits we’ve come to expect of great leaders. Everything about this list implies action. Leaders act. They act decisively. They speak clearly in order to inspire those around them to act in clear and effective ways. Leadership is all about action. 

So, why have we entitled this series Leading By Listening? Doesn’t listening connote just the opposite of leadership-as-action? Isn’t listening a rather passive state? A state of taking things in more than getting stuff done?

In fact, listening—real listening, in contrast to merely hearing—is anything but passive. Cutting edge neuroscientists, such as Brown University’s Seth Horowitz, have made the case that listening entails a highly disciplined form of action, which they call “attention.” “Attention” describes our ability to prompt the brain to take control of the sensory experience of hearing, which it otherwise allows to happen passively.

Because we are hearing all the timebecause our ears don’t come equipped with lids for closing them off, as our eyes dowe have evolved the adaptive ability to hear without listening—to register sounds on the eardrum without bothering the brain to pay “attention” to each and every vibration. This is an especially useful tool in our relentlessly noisy digital age. Amidst the whirring and buzzing soundscape of contemporary life, you’ve got to be able to filter out the static. Think of our ability to hear without listening as nature’s version of Bose noise-cancelling headphones.

The downside of this highly adaptive behavior is that we may actually forget how to listen, inadvertently filtering out the things that most need our attention. “Hearing is easy,” as Horowitz says, “listening is hard”—especially in a digital age.

In this series, we’ll take all of this a bit further. We’ll consider not just the act but the art of attentive listening. We will consider the benefits and challenges that surround listening in a digital age. We’ll explore the ways that listening entails a willingness to let go of pre-existing biases, to learn new and sometimes uncomfortable truths. Underlying our exploration is the conviction that listening presents the opportunity for meaningful human connection.

Along the way, we will consult organizational leaders, facilitators, and skilled listeners from multiple disciplines to sort out the interconnections of leadership and listening. Below is a glimpse of some of the threads we will follow over the next few months:

  1. Overcoming the “Listening Bias” in Order to Think Differently: We tend to hear what we expect to hear, just as we tend to see what we expect to see. And so it’s hard to hear new things. The mind has developed pre-conceived way of making sense of the jumble of sensations we encounter minute by minute. And it’s pretty set in its ways. When we encounter something new, the mind sometimes fails to register it simply because it does not fit neatly into the set of concepts that we are accustomed to working with. This is what Tony Salvador, director of Intel’s Insights Lab, calls “The Listening Bias.” The implication being that to become a true listener, requires an added level of attention to the unfamiliar, the unusual, that which resides outside the box. If this is a challenge it is also an opportunity. Listening to the unfamiliar gives the leader the ability to discover new solutions, to think differently, to bring something original into the field.
  2. Listening Uncovers Key Insights Hidden in Broad Day Light: Apple’s famous slogan “Think Different” was a call to all of us to become innovators. But we might also raise a battle cry to “Listen Different.”

    It’s easy to hear familiar things, but it’s hard to listen to them. Some things in our auditory field have become so commonplace that we instinctively kick into “hearing” mode, turning off attention, when we encounter them. To really listen to something we’ve heard—or think we’ve listened to—many times before requires great skill. But the payoff for this attentional work can be huge. Sometimes the insight we need to unlock a personal or organization problem is found not in dredging up some new fangled ideas, but in listening with great attention to the seemingly familiar. Listening allows us to squeeze deeper, more subtle insights from the supposed truisms we’ve learned nod our heads to on auto pilot.

    Likewise, listening allows us to hear voices that often get pushed to the side, especially in organizational contexts that overvalue certain kinds of voices—generally, the loud ones. As Susan Cain has argued in her bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, “Any time people come together in a meeting, we’re not necessarily getting the best ideas; we’re just getting the ideas of the best talkers.” Leading by listening requires that we pause and open up space for different kinds of voices to fill the air, lest the best ideas be left unheard because unspoken—spoken in ways that we are unaccustomed to hearing.

  3. Listening Gives Us the Gift of Being Quiet: Listening requires quietness, and it’s a very loud world. In his fascinating new book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff suggests we think about quietness not as an absence but as a design element. Just like the open space for a park in a city—Central Park in New York, say—quietness, Ratliff observes, must be pre-planned and defended, or it will be built over and paved away. When quietness is designed into our daily life, we greatly increase our chances of marshaling the attention necessary to actually listen. And when we listen we can grasp the unfamiliar, pick up the insight hidden in plain sight, and even find the right words to say.

As we kick off this series, it’s worth noting that we are aware that listening is a distinctly low-tech venture in a world fixated on high-tech solutions. Yet, we maintain, this low-tech modality remains the stuff of human connection. The old adage that the soul is contained in the human voice remains true even as the world gets ever louder and more virtual. As active leaders aspiring to be active listeners, we are keeping these soulful, human-to-human connections alive.