What Are You Listening For?

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that listening skills are in a serious deficit?

Hello? Is this thing on? But seriously, folks …

This was acutely evident during the run up to last year’s US presidential election and in the months since. Unless you cancelled your cable subscription and tossed every electronic device out the window, it was (and still is!) impossible to miss the countless arguments erupting everywhere. From media outlets to social networks, someone somewhere is completely intolerant of what someone else is saying.

Politics can be an unusually ripe hotbed for deafness … regardless of which side of the aisle one leans toward. What the campaign cycle reinforced for me, though, was just how profoundly having a clear listening intention influences a leader’s actual ability to lead.

Coincidentally, as the campaign was running its course, I was coaching two executives from two different companies, both with growing listening gaps. These leaders each had impressive track records of performance and progression that elevated them to the senior leadership teams of their respective organizations. Yet somewhere along the way, their listening skills waned – significantly enough that questions arose regarding their fit and their futures.

A weakness in this area might not seem like such a deal breaker. When it erodes collaboration and undermines trust among fellow leaders and key stakeholders, though, it is.

What comes to mind when you think of a leader who doesn’t listen to the people around him or her?

Arrogant? Know-it-all? Maybe a jerk?

It might surprise you to hear that both of these leaders are values-oriented, ethical, hard-working and dedicated people. Both of them are confident in their abilities, yet humble enough to acknowledge they have plenty of room to grow and learn from others. They’re fun, have great senses of humor and want nothing more than to contribute to the success of the business, while creating a positive environment for all.

Arrogant, know-it-all, jerks? Nope. Far from it.

Just really good people and very talented leaders who went a bit off track while navigating the most high-pressured, complex roles of their careers to date. It could happen to any of us.

While there’s always more than just one behavior or focus area to tackle in engagements like this, a return to high impact listening was crucial for both of my clients. A key practice I shared with them is one called Listening For / Speaking For. I’ll outline Listening For here and my next blog will cover Speaking For.

Listening For

It begins with the question: What are you listening for?

Whether in a 1:1 conversation or a meeting, notice what your ear is tuning in for. We tend to listen for something specific with each audience and, oftentimes, this happens just below the waterline of our consciousness.

Perhaps we’re listening for …

  • What does my audience expect or need from me?
  • How can I influence the direction of the discussion to align with my view?
  • Do I agree with this? Does it fit with my beliefs or expectations?
  • Is this good news or bad? How will it affect me?

Past experience with our colleagues can also influence what we’re listening for …

  • Engaging with a colleague who you view as a political animal may have you listening for evidence of more maneuvering so that you can determine if or how to respond.
  • Engaging with someone you respect and like may lead you to listen from a position of assumed support, with less discernment of the content.

And when we’re not at our best, we can listen for opportunities and scenarios that might not serve us well in the long run.

For instance, one of my clients was often unconsciously listening for the opportunity to demonstrate her brilliance, which resulted in frequently picking apart the presentations and ideas of her colleagues. You can imagine how that went over.

In all of these scenarios, the listening intention is “me.”

What does this conversation mean to me? For me? About me? What am I supposed to bring to the table and do I have the ideas or experience to do that? How do I want to handle this issue or this person?

It’s very natural. After all, there’s presumably a reason we’re in the conversation in the first place!

Yet when our listening style evolves into one of predominantly listening for “me” and “my place” in the dialogue, we actually limit the very contributions we’re there to make.

Instead of creating an expansive field for inquiry and understanding, instead of fostering brainstorming, debate, healthy dissent and sound decision-making, we do the opposite. We narrow the focus, eliminate creativity, and cut off our options.

With a listening intention on “me,” we build artificial and unnecessary boundaries that prevent everyone from contributing their best.

Listening is a full-body, head and heart, contact sport.

What the practice of Listening For encourages, first and foremost, is beginning with an intention to be present to all of what is being communicated and conveyed by others.

This requires you to leave behind your assumptions, interpretations and judgments about the person and the topic, in order to create a space where people can be fully expressed without fear of condemnation or reprisal.

Does that sound like a stretch? A little too deep?

Think about it … how likely are you to lay it all out there if you anticipate your audience reacting negatively or thinking less of you? I’m willing to bet the likelihood is slim. After all, look at all the classes out there on how to influence and persuade … is that not at least a bit connected to a fear of judgment and failure?  I digress.

Being fully transparent can feel awfully vulnerable. Yet to get to the core of any truly important matter, to generate the most innovative solutions to the most vexing challenges, we need transparency … which means we need vulnerability.

What in the world does that have to do with listening?

Because unlocking the very best in people – a leader’s primary job – resides in how you listen and what you Listen For.

Below are some suggestions to support you in developing your intentional ear. I hope these expand your capacity to be fully present to others, to be more effective with people and circumstances that have previously challenged you, and to tap a new level of leadership through the art of intentional listening.

Oh, and my two clients? They’re both back on track, having repaired vital relationships and demonstrating a sustained commitment to their development and self-management. And both have noted that the Listening For practice opened the door to an entirely new level of their leadership.


  • Listen for what the topic means to the other people involved. How much do they care? What’s at stake for them?
  • Listen for levels of ownership. Are they coming from obligation or commitment?
  • Listen for their energy. Where do they lose energy and become depleted v. where do they light up and become exuberant?
  • Listen for withholding. What remains unspoken? What might have them in this self-restraint?
  • Listen for their greatness. Where does their talent lie? Is it being tapped? Do they realize this talent exists within them?

These are only a few starters for your consideration and practice. As you put these into motion, you’ll find other areas to explore in your listening and other techniques to expand your abilities.

Of course, eventually, it’ll be your turn to speak. Check back soon for my next blog post, What Are You Speaking For?, and related practices to support your leadership!



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