Leaders: It's Time to Fix the Way You Listen

Understanding how we listen helps us forge stronger connections and solutions.

learn more about Judith E. Glaser

By Judith E. Glaser

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Listening to connect is the most powerful tool for activating the part of the brain that enables growth and who we'll become next. While level listening can help us be more informed or influence others, listening to connect is a powerful way to relate with others to bring about both personal and interpersonal transformations.

A year ago, a woman who attended a webinar I presented emailed me and asked to speak on the phone. She was a Harvard graduate, a powerful lawyer, and a coach. But she and her 15-year-old daughter had not communicated well for years. The doctors didn't know why. She was healthy but slow to process and hesitant to engage. This condition caused her mother great concern, frustration, and confusion, even fear.

She spoke for 10 minutes, non-stop, and I listened. But then I asked for permission to speak and to tell what I thought was happening with her daughter. I said, "My instincts tell me that you are strong, loud, and opinionated and that you are not listening to your daughter's point of view. Her pattern of engagement is influenced by you. You fill the conversational space. Your daughter wants to express herself, but she is unable to connect with you in a healthy way. You have power over her."

The big experiment
This power-over relationship was powerfully impacting her child, and neither of them knew it. So I asked this woman if she was willing to try an experiment. I suggested she change the interaction dynamics with her daughter by listening to connect – not judging or rejecting. "Listening to connect also involves asking questions for which you don't have answers," I explained. "Listen to give your daughter space to speak, and don't judge her – even in your mind. Receive her, and discover who she might become, not who she was or is.

"After you try this experiment, call me," I said.

The next day I got a call – with news I didn't anticipate yet hoped for.

"This was the best conversation I've ever had with my daughter," she said. "I can't believe it. She seems like a different child."

A few weeks later, I received a visit from the woman, her daughter, and her husband in my own home. We talked for hours, and it was an extraordinary meeting of insight and transformation for all of us. The parents showed up with compassion – and their daughter showed up with conversation. As we listened to connect, we created space for each of us to show up differently with each other – the conversation enabled a new pattern of engagement to emerge right in front of our eyes. Their daughter stepped up and out – became bolder and more assertive – a wonderful new person emerged, and what we learned was life changing.

Listening to connect is the most powerful catalyst for growth known to human beings. When we listen to judge or confirm what we know, we impose a label on others through which we see them. Driven by our need to be right, we take away the space and "breath' they need for their aspirations to come to life. When we listen to judge, we impose our beliefs about others on them and we often limit their power and potential. They become a diminished version of themselves.

When we listen to connect – we open and expand the space, allowing their aspirational self to emerge. We think out loud with them, and share our dreams with them and co-create with them we all experience ourselves in a new way.

Related: Why You Can't Shake Off That Last Argument

What drives listening shapes your world
The listening mind is never blank or impartial. Our listening is influenced by events, relationships, experiences, history and feelings in the moment. As objective as we would like to be in our listening, we are subject to the effects of our physical and emotional states. Being tired, angry, elated or stressed predisposes us to attend selectively to what we hear.

Recall a recent situation when you were a listener. Did you listen to facts or to specific words? Did you paraphrase these words in your mind? Did this lead to new impressions? Were you affected by the speaker's voice, dress, demeanor, mood, or attitude? Were you evaluating the speaker's effectiveness or importance or judging his or her ideas? Or, were you so preoccupied that you didn't listen at all?

Since we can't attend to everything we hear we listen selectively. But what guides our listening? Why do people who hear the same speech often walk away with different impressions? Obviously, they didn't "hear" the same thing.

We hear one-sixth as fast as we think, and so the mind has the time to construct questions, inferences, and associations. Do we use this time wisely? Do we recognize that ineffective listening is a management problem?

Related: Turns Out You've Been Brainstorming All Wrong

Four listening behaviors
Consider these four types of common listening behavior:
1. Noise-in-the-attic listening. To project that we are good listeners, we might sit silently while others talk. Outwardly, we appear to be listening. Inwardly, however, we may be listening to the noise in the attic—disengaged from the speaker's ideas and involved in our own mental processes. Such listening tends to develop from childhood experiences. As youngsters, we may have heard: "Don't talk while I'm speaking!" "Don't ask so many questions!" "Why? Because I said so!" Conditioned by these warnings, many of us turn off our minds and habits of inquiry. Instead of clarifying the speaker's intent, we are preoccupied with our internalizations: "Who does she think she is?" or "I can do his job better than he can." Or, we may find ourselves planning a trip, remembering a pleasant experience, or completing a thought—returning from time to time to listen to what is being said. Sound familiar?

2. Face-value listening. When think we are hearing facts, the words we are hearing are interpretations. In face value listening, the listener isn't mentally checking back into the real world to assess whether the words explain what they purport to explain. Words are heard more for their literal meanings, not as tools for understanding. This explains why leaders, managers, and staff can differ dramatically in their perceptions. Children use face value listening, since their experiences are so limited. Our experiences should add depth to our listening.

3. Position listening. In business, people tend to engage in position listening when they seek clues to how their job performance is perceived. For example, a manager might listen to her president's annual report to determine whether her division will be growing. What she hears in that talk could easily impact her performance as well as her relationships with coworkers. She will listen to immediate superiors to determine her role. Obviously, position listening can lead to faulty assumptions and destroy the morale of a high-performing team.

4. Listening to connect. How we listen impacts our performance and all we do. Listening is not an end in itself, but part of a dynamic process between people that creates space for growth and engagement, for sharing and discovering, and for enabling new ideas, thoughts, wisdom, and growth to emerge. Listening to connect quells our lower brain, which seeks to be right or judge others – and creates space for our spirit and energy to emerge.

Listening to Connect is the most powerful framework of Conversational Intelligence. People thrive on connection and affirmation, not criticism and judgment. When we listen to connect we create a platform for peering into each other's minds, and become the "mid-wives' of our next-generation thinking, enabling us to set more helpful, meaningful, and productive objectives for the future. When we adopt the framework of listening to connect, we improve our ability to connect, navigate and grow with others. We make better friends, better parents, and better partners – and in business we make better decisions and become better leaders for the present and the future.

Judith E. Glaser

CEO, Benchmark Communications

Judith E. Glaser's latest book is best-seller "Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results." She is Chief Executive Officer of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and Chairman of WE Institute. Her clients range from IBM and Bank of America to American Express and Target. 

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