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July 19, 2019 Outside the Box

You have two ears and one mouth

Bonnie J. Walker
Check out Bonnie J. Walker's other Outside the Box columns.
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Leaders who listen understand their organizations are successful because of the insights, attention, and contributions of every member therein. Not listening is like a shepherd not tending to the sheep: It’s self-defeating.

One of my pet peeves is when someone interrupts and talks over me, responding to me in complete disconnect or even inappropriately, because they never listened to what I was saying in the first place. Most people in leadership are busy, and so only take sound bites from what people say. Managers try to save time by crafting their responses before listening. This practice is flawed and likely to backfire.

In a summer internship many years ago, every Monday morning I would walk into my boss’s office, as directed, to pitch a story for the company newsletter. He sat at his desk with his side profile in my direct view. As I spoke standing in the doorway of his office (never invited in), I would watch him typing, staring intently at his desktop. He would respond to me only with a slight nod to acknowledge my voice. He never made eye contact or so much as turned his head in my direction. He would say, “Good, good,” interrupting as I pitched the stories, of which I learned quickly meant “Hurry up, tell me faster, I’m busy.” It also meant he liked it. Or, he would say, “No, no,” before I could finish, which meant “Get out of here, pitch me something else.” Individuals hardly get away with this disrespectful and lackluster listening communication in their personal relationships, so why impose it on colleagues at work? I wondered if my internship boss interacted with others the same way? Was it because I was the youngest person in the office, a woman of color, a temporary intern positioned low on the organizational chart, a combination of these things, or something else? I’ll never know. 

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman published, “What Great Listeners Actually Do” in July 2017 in Harvard Business Review. They say good listening is:

• Is much more than being silent while the other person talks, 

• Includes interactions building a person’s self-esteem,

• Is a cooperative conversation, 

• Is engaging with positive suggestions.

Zenger and Folkman’s findings show good listeners are like trampolines, saying you can “bounce your ideas off of good listeners; they absorb your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting.”

Listening has different levels, and each level builds on the others. 

Level 1: The listener creates a safe environment in which difficult, complex, or emotional issues can be discussed.

Level 2: The listener clears away distractions like phones and laptops and makes appropriate eye-contact.

Level 3: The listener seeks to understand the substance of what the other person is saying. They capture ideas, ask questions, and restate issues.

Level 4: The listener observes non-verbal cues.

Level 5: The listener increasingly understands the other person’s emotions and feelings about the topic at hand, identifies and acknowledges them with empathy and validates those feelings in a supportive, nonjudgmental way.

Level 6: The listener asks questions clarifying assumptions the other person holds and helps the other person see the issue in a new light. Good listeners never highjack the conversation so they become the subject of the discussion.

Listening leaders are crucial in every organization, where careers, profits, growth and cultural climate hangs in the balance. Have you considered your biases toward people, and how they impact your ability to listen? If you don’t listen well, you may lose good people, and you might not accomplish your organizational goals. Listen twice as much as you speak.
Bonnie J. Walker is executive director of diversity & inclusion strategy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, plying this arena in higher education in Mass. for 15 years. Contact her at

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