Whenever I get the opportunity to talk to people whose leaders inspire them, one word constantly comes up: listening. And it’s always interesting to wait for the next word: mostly its ‘encouraging’. As in “he was a great listener: really encouraging”.  The third word is generally prompted by me “And what did that mean for you?” Response “confidence”. It’s a magic trinity; one word predictably following another.

Listening – it can seem insignificant, polite, even passive. But true, deep, curious, generative listening is truly the elixir of leadership: it demonstrates respect, signifies openness and tells the talker “you matter”. Put simply: it is hard to estimate its impact.

Good listening is about creating a space that allows people to do their best thinking and talking. And it’s much more difficult than it sounds – the tendency to explain, tell, justify is very strong

So how do you do it? I’m never quite sure about the “talk to your partner for two minutes” exercises that you find on leadership development workshops. I think they’re useful – just not sure how much of an impact that they will have back in deadline-land. Developing self-awareness, e.g. by consciously noticing how you listen and recording it in a learning journal, can be very powerful.

A mnemonic can help (a tiny bit): mine is CARES:

Curious – Get really curious about who is coming to talk to you and why. This can help switch off the automatic, unconscious story that often kicks off,

Ask Questions – ask sincere open questions. ”Open’ is not just about the wording – it’s about the state of the listener’s mind,

Reflect – reflect back what the person is saying, using their words. People’s words give you an insight into their world. When you reflect them back you are saying “I understand your world”.  Then stay silent. This will either move the conversation on (“yes, and as well as that…”) or it will move it to a deeper level (“and what was really tough about that was…”),

Environment: for deep conversations, the right environment is important – phone and laptop away, private space. (This should really be at the beginning but then the mnemonic is ECARS which is not as beautiful!)

Silence – not an awkward silence – but a warm ‘holding’ silence, maintaining gentle eye contact, or just reflecting. Watching the speaker’s eyes in particular. Even if they’re not talking, when their eyes are moving, they are thinking. If they look back to you, count to three, slowly, before speaking. Again, silence is often the invitation for the speaker to go deeper.

Working in teams, the challenge of creating a listening environment can be great. When it happens there is a still, quiet, expectant magic with team members saying things that they really believe, that they haven’t dared to say before. And nobody feeling like they need to reply – just that they have permission to say what is true for them.

Perhaps the most useful ‘how’ is to really want to listen. And to misquote Lauren Bacall: “you know how to listen dontcha? You just put your lips together and wait”.