Living Leadership

Living Leadership

Break point: Advantage to the one who listens

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Julie Thorson
Julie Thorson

If there were a bucket full of all the leadership lessons in the world and you could pull out only one skill to master, it should be the ability to listen. I used to think early in my career the number one skill to be an effective leader was to talk or communicate well. Wrong!

It is, without a doubt, to listen. Not hearing. Listening, and actively listening with every part of your being.

This is a skill few perfect. Many aspire to learn and others — and these are the worst kind of leaders — simply don't think it's important. Or wait, the very worst is those who think they listen well and continue to not. Some of these players are easy to pick out. They are in love with their own voice and they use it often. They rarely allow anyone else to get a word in.

I once worked with someone, whom I continually watched form her next paragraph in her head (which, naturally, included several 50-cent vocabulary words) while I was speaking. This was clue number one to me she could not care less about what I was saying and cared much more about what she was going to say next.

It was like a tennis match. I volley a point, she hits the backhand and we go back and forth. Someone must be keeping score because what we were saying was that much more important than what was said previously! That sounds just like effective communication, doesn't it? Not.

It took many years to figure out communication isn't competition. I still forget this from time to time and ache to make a point that stops everyone on their tracks. The greatest and perhaps simplest gift we can give one another is to slow down and really listen. Listen with your ears, your eyes, your posture, and your mouth (by keeping it shut).

There are many more times I have failed at this skill than I have won, but that's the beauty of it, we can always try again. More importantly, we recognize it is important.

I was recently reminded of this while reading “True North” by Bill George. “Active listening is one of the most important abilities of empowering leaders, because people sense such individuals are genuinely interested in them and not just trying to get something from them,” he writes. Developing your leadership skills takes time. It takes self-reflection, practice and it takes the ability to truly see yourself through others eyes.

Think about the very last conversation you had that lasted for longer than 10 minutes. Were you completely focused on the person you were with? Focused on what they were saying, how they were saying it, what their body language told you and the tone of their voice? Or were you figuring out a response to their dilemma? Thinking of all the things you need to get done and can't because your listening to the speaker? Annoyed because of an imperfection the speaker has? Or were you considering the last conversation you had and how there was no resolution? Thinking of a spin-off topic not related to the one you were discussing but equally important and also deserves attention? Chances are one or maybe even more of these distractions were floating around in your head while you were giving the speaker the impression of listening.

Let's face it: We all do it. To focus with 100% attention is tough. We are bombarded with information all day long and as leaders our ability to react, respond and engage is tested many times a day … we don't have time to slow down and listen!

I would challenge that and say, we don't have the time to not listen! So many of our conversations and “re-conversations” could be avoided if we listened, heard and understood each other the first time. I can't tell you how many times throughout the course of the day I ask teammates to repeat themselves not because I didn't hear them but because I wasn't focused on them.

I'll admit it's hard, but I recognize it's a skill worth mastering. Not only at work but at home. As we run through the tasks of life, are we taking the time to listen with our whole being?

It's worth trying and, again, if it's the only leadership skill we master, it's more than worth it. If we don't continue to at least try, it's our own fault and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Julie Thorson is the president and CEO of Friendship Haven, a continuing care retirement community in Fort Dodge, IA, that earned the Governor's Award for Quality in 2014. A coach's daughter at heart, she is a former part-time nursing home social worker who quickly ascended the leadership ranks. A licensed nursing home administrator, she has been a participant in LeadingAge's Leadership Academy and was recently named LeadingAge Iowa's Mentor of the Year. 


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