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The most important of your five senses for effective leadership

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

As an avid runner, I enjoy listening to podcasts and music whilst jogging along the river or through one of the amazing parks that we are lucky to live near. The scariest things to have happened to me whilst running was when two overly enthusiastic dogs tripped me up during one of my regular runs. I was oblivious to the dogs because I was dulling a key sense at the time by wearing earphones and listening to a podcast or perhaps it was music and not taking any notice of the sound of the environment around me. Fortunately, other than a few scrapes and bruises (mostly to my ego) no damage was done and the dogs, after sniffing and licking me to make sure I was ok, merrily carried on their way. I committed to finding a safer way to enjoy running and listening/learning at the same time and hence researched and bought a pair of bone conduction headphones that work by transmitting the sound through the cheekbones to the inner ear, bypassing the eardrums. With nothing blocking the ears, maximum situational awareness is maintained.


This incident reminded me just how important our hearing is and our ability to listen effectively. By wearing my old earphones and shutting off the outside world, dulling my sense of hearing, I had limited myself to level 1 listening. The way we listen can be explained by splitting it into three levels:

  • Level 1 – Internal Listening

  • Level 2 – Focused Listening

  • Level 3 – Environmental Listening

In level 1 the focus in on you, not the person speaking or your environment. Your focus is on what does it mean to you personally and how does what you are being told impact your agenda. My running analogy firmly places me at level 1 and in my experience, this is where most listening in business today sits. How does it impact me, the listener and how should I respond?

With level 2 listening your complete focus is on the person speaking. What are they saying, how are they saying it, what are they not saying, and what are the non-verbal cues all comes into play. You are no longer trying to figure out your next move and response, instead, you are giving your complete focus to the person speaking so you can maximise your understanding.

Level 3 listening adds to level 2. Not only is your complete focus on the speaker but you can spot the impact their words and presence are having on the room and audience. The change in energy levels - did the audience respond well or not to a phrase or choice of words. Live performers have highly developed level 3 listening skills as the successful ones must adapt, think on their feet and quickly read a room.

An example of how not to listen

The former CEO and Chairman of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf’s, performance in front of the Senate Banking Committee over the fraudulent accounts scandal is a great (read bad) example of level 1 listening. Here was someone who had reached the lofty heights of CEO at one of the most valuable banks in the world and yet he was unable to read his audience. He kept to his prepared remarks and was oblivious to the fact that each time he blamed others for the fraud that took place on his watch he was alienating his audience and incurred their worsening hostility throughout the hearing.

  • He minimised his role and influence with the board even though he was chair

  • He kept reiterating that cross-selling was about deepening client relationships and wasn’t about aggressive sales targets

  • He blamed the low-income employees (the 1% that had been terminated) and not on the aggressive sales culture he had created

He failed to focus on the speakers and really hear them, he failed to adjust the language he used in response to their reactions to his comments. He failed to be believable. A failure to listen wasn’t the only evidence of poor leadership on display, being accountable was completely missing as well.

We aren't taught how to listen

In a typical business setting today we are conditioned to listen to respond which is level 1. People who speak up, often interrupting others, repeating what others have said or use “…yes, but…” have been rewarded. They have been viewed as impactful or proactive even though they will not have properly heard and therefore understood what is being said. We need to break the habit of listening to respond where the focus is on ourselves, our agenda and what our next move should be, as we need more listening to understand which fits firmly with level 2 and 3 listening.

Level 2 and 3 listening requires your focus and attention, it requires effort and unfortunately, we don’t get taught to listen effectively through on the job training. To break the bad habits, we first need to be self-aware and recognise that understanding is more important than responding. The realisation came to me whilst reading Nancy Kline’s “Time To Think” (1999) when I literally went “huh, that’s it, that is what has been going on!”

I now use effective listening as a core element within my coaching and operate at level 2 and level 3. The coaching agenda is the client’s, I focus exclusively on the client and not on how what they are saying impacts me.

A great TED talk that covers communication and listening is by Celeste Headlee - 10 ways to have a better conversation.

I love how Celeste says

“…no one ever listened themselves out of a job.”

Lastly, if you ever want a master class on listening then speak with a hostage negotiator. People’s lives literally depend on their ability to listen and understand what is being said.

Listening is an underrated leadership skill. Ask challenging questions and be a good listener and you will be surprised at the breadth of ideas and solutions that your teams generate when given the opportunity to do so.





Write it on your hand as a reminder the next time you are in a meeting.


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