How listening can actually make you a more powerful leader

You need your people to perform at the top of their game. You need high-quality thinking and breakthrough ideas to keep your company competitive. 

So…what’s the easiest way to make that happen? 

Better listening. 

You may think that you don’t have time to stop and listen deeply. But the truth is that the cost of not listening is much higher. 

Consider this. When you don’t listen deeply, your people may:

  • feel fearful of sharing what they know
  • not be able to articulate what they really mean
  • second-guess their best ideas
  • avoid asking for help 

For any of the above scenarios, you’re putting the future of your company at risk. 

Your job as a leader is to help people feel safe and empowered so that they can do their best possible thinking for you.

As Nancy Kline writes in Time to Think, creating a thinking environment is exactly what your people need to generate high-quality ideas that drive your business forward.   

How does listening help people think better? 

Let’s talk about what helps the brain do its best thinking. 

The brain is a connection machine. To make new connections, the brain needs three things:

Emotional safety: Brains work best when they are not in “threat mode.” 

When you tune out or interrupt others, you're indicating to them that you don’t value what they have to say. This puts the emotional part of the brain on high alert and triggers a cascade of stress chemicals in the body. When people respond to you while experiencing a cocktail of stress chemicals, you better believe that you're getting sub-par thinking. 

When you listen attentively, on the other hand, you send signals that you care about and value what others have to say. This can lead to a release of “feel-good” chemicals, such as dopamine, for increasing motivation and focus. 

Mental space: Brains work best when they have airtime to think through challenges. 

When you give airtime to your people to think through challenges, you send the signal that you believe they have the ability to solve their own issues and are willing to invest the time to help them. This helps them access the part of the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for insight, intuition, and logical thinking to better understand the situation at hand and explore possible solutions. 

Creative provocation: Brains work best when they are challenged with interesting questions.  

As Sir John Whitmore writes, “To tell denies or negates another’s intelligence. To ask honors it.” When you listen and respond with questions that help your people generate their own creative solutions, you do more than just solve the problem at hand. You help create the conditions for the prefrontal cortex to make new neural connections. With these new connections in place, your people are now able to better respond to similar situations in the future. 

How can you improve your listening? 

Now that we’ve established how better listening makes your people smarter, let’s talk about how you can do it. 

Practice Verbal Listening

Pay close attention to the words spoken by the other person. It's helpful to mirror those words back so that the person feels heard and understood. 

Practice Global Listening

It's also helpful to expand your focus beyond the words spoken. Consider the information conveyed through emotions, voice tone, and body language of the other person. Powerful team leaders expand their focus to the emotions, voice tone, and body language of the other people in the room as well.  

Practice Listening for Potential:

Lastly, while listening to the other person, see if you can spot the strengths and passions of the person speaking. When relevant, reflect those strengths and passions back to the person speaking. Not only will they have felt acknowledged and appreciated by you, but you'll also help them recognize their own potential for generating kick-ass solutions. 

That's the kind of thinking environment your people want and need. And it's as simple as shutting up and truly, deeply listening like the leader you were meant to be.