Listen & Learn Part 2

Leading By Listening 

Written by:
Sarah Colantonio, Professor of Communications at Millersville University
Kedren Crosby, VP of Organizational Behavior, E4 Strategic Consultancy

Communication is a Duet, Not a Solo
Check most college course listings and you’re likely to find a communication class in public speaking.  Rarely does a class on listening appear on those lists.  And while researchers estimate we spend about half of our communication listening, we aren’t well prepared.

The truth is that most of us have only been taught one side of communication.

Listening, if done well, is far more powerful than writing and public speaking and even power posing (but we are still grateful, Amy Cuddy).  Listening provides an invaluable opportunity to see inside of others.  Listening is an underrated, under-practiced and rarely taught super power.  Listening is not just jet fuel for your own career, but it can also transform the people and outcomes of the organizations that you lead.

Listening is Jet Fuel, And it Makes You Sexy, Too
Listening expert Judith Pollack says that “listening can have a dramatic effect on your personal and professional success.” Because…

  • When you listen, you teach the other person to listen too.
  • You’ll seem smart.
  • You actually will become smarter because you’ll know more.
  • You’ll get the other person to trust and like you.
  • You won’t make as many mistakes.
  • You’ll be a calmer person and it’ll make the people around you feel calmer too.

A Convert’s Story
Biotech CEO, Kevin Sharer started his career in his 30s as a horrible listener focused on ‘intellectual winning’ instead of comprehension.  “It wasn’t an evil, megalomania-driven thing; it was mostly because I was a striver, I wanted to get ahead.”  One day it all changed. It was a simple comment from a leader and colleague he admired, Sam Palmisano. When asked why a particular work experience in Japan was so important to him, Sam replied, “Because I learned to listen.” He learned that it’s less about persuading people and more about setting aside critique and really listening.  “Listening for comprehension helps you get that information, of course, but it’s more than that: it’s also the greatest sign of respect you can give someone.”
(Why I’m a listener: Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer McKinsey Quarterly 2012).

 CEOs and leaders can infuse listening in some of the same transformative ways that Sharer did.  Consider adopting some of the following habits within your organization;

  1. Create a CULTURE OF LISTENING and respect based on shaping your own organizational behavior built on who is hired as well as what existing habits are tolerated, rewarded and incentivized.  You can engender an environment of attentiveness, partnership, teamwork, trust, and respect (and fire anyone with a bullying tendency).
  2. Develop STRATEGIC LISTENING which is a purposeful, multifaceted, time-sensitive listening system that helps you get the signals you need from your organization’s ecosystem.  This involves regularly visiting with, and listening to, people in the company who don’t necessarily report to the CEO.
  3. Adopt effective LISTENING HABITS (including patience and humility).  Listening can be learned, but to change your behavior you’ve got to have deep self-awareness. Sharer said that before his epiphany, he had been about 90 percent tell and 10 percent listen, and realized that he needed to be closer to 50-50.  There has to be a certain humility to listen well.  It’s no longer about me telling you what to do because I believe I’m smarter than you are.
  4. Listen for the PSYCHOLOGY of the situation. Listen at the level that allows you to discern the underlying thinking and motivations of the people who help you achieve so that you can help them become even more effective.

Test Yourself
Here is a Listening Self-Assessment courtesy of

Test yourself with this assessment before your next staff meeting.  Try it again after your next board meeting.  Even simply reading the evaluation is enlightening.

  1. I remember the main points of what I hear.
  2. I know the purpose of my listening and at the end, I check to see if my purpose has been met.
  3. I stay focused on listening; I don’t spend listening time planning my response.
  4. I wait to hear the speaker’s full message; I don’t jump to conclusions or argue mentally.
  5. I recognize and close out potential distractions to listening.
  6. I clarify and summarize points of agreement or disagreement.
  7. I attempt to follow the speaker’s train of thought.
  8. I judge the message on its content, not on the style or delivery of the speaker.
  9. I provide feedback to the speaker and ask for more information if necessary
  10. I know that listening doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing.

Now, evaluate yourself using these ten questions after a lengthy holiday dinner with your in-laws. Your workplace may be the far easier place to begin honing your listening skills, after all.

 “If there is any hope for us, it lies in relearning to tell the truth and hear it, and in reclaiming ourselves as a listening species.”
-Maria Popova (creator of Brain Pickings)

Sarah Colantonio is a Professor of Communications at Millersville University. Contact her at

Kedren Crosby is VP of Organizational Behavior at E4 Strategic Consultancy. Contact her at or 717.690.2056.

Click here to read our previous blog post in this series – Listen & Learn Part 1: Transform Your Team Without Saying a Word

Click here to view upcoming trainings from the Nonprofit Resource Network

Millersville University launched the Solutions for Success blog to share information and insights as well as resources and training opportunities available through Millersville University Graduate & Professional Studies including the Nonprofit Resource NetworkCorporate University, and the Certified Public Manager program.

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