“The servant leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps to clarify that will. He or she listens receptively to what is being said and unsaid. Listening also encompasses hearing one’s own inner voice. Listening, coupled with periods of reflection, is essential to the growth and well-being of the servant leader.” Larry Spears 

This past week, during a workshop I was facilitating, we spent some time practicing the fine art of listening. Our convention in conversation is to take turns, isn’t it? I say something and when I’m done, you say something. And we continue the volleying until the conversation is done. And of course, while you are talking, I’m preparing to respond meaning my attention is a bit fractured, not completely focused on your words. Being listened to, deeply listened to, without agenda, is a rare experience. So rare that we have to be intentional about creating such opportunities.

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

An exercise in listening

During the workshop, I shared one of my favorite fables from Friedman’s Fables. It’s an extended metaphor with an ending that surprises many people. Then I asked participants to pair up with someone they didn’t know well and to spend thirty minutes in listening practice. It’s a structured exercise. Person One has fifteen minutes to reflect on the story and its meaning for them. Person Two’s role is to listen. Not to talk, nor to ask questions, but to listen attentively and without interruption. Then they change roles.

It’s an artificial setup, of course. But even so, most participants find it powerful – once they get through the awkwardness. It’s a rare talker who goes for fifteen minutes straight, but it happens. For most people, the silence, while uncomfortable, allows people to move past their first response to the story. It gives them a chance to go deeper, understand more than their initial surprise.

It’s also a rare listener who is comfortable with the silence needed. Convention tells us that questions, comments, and affirmations are expected, required even. It takes restraint to be silent and not be anything more than a lump. The fact that I had suggested people walk around the grounds helped. Walking and talking allows for the creation of physical space as well as auditory space.

Leaders who listen

Listening is an essential skill for leaders, but it’s challenging to practice in our hectic organizations. It’s also difficult to create time and space for others to listen as well. How do you make certain you are listening to the voices of your organization? What do you do to create space for others to be heard? How do you help others learn how to listen and listen to learn?

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