“If I can give you one piece of advice it’s this: silence is powerful, see how long you can hold the silence.”

This piece of leadership advice is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve been given. It’s also one of the most challenging to implement.

It was Justine who imparted these words of wisdom. She was my manager at the time. I knew what she was talking about because I’d been on the calls – the international conference calls with team members from across the globe, the calls where she put these words into practice.

“Can you help me understand why we’ve been consistently under-target for the past three weeks?” she would ask. Then silence.

The space, opened up by her question, would hang there, all of us listening into it. Only an answer could end the excruciating silence. There was nowhere else to go, nothing to hide behind. Somebody always cracked, throwing their voice into that gaping silence. Even if all they had to offer was a “no, I can’t explain that” or a weak excuse.

Everybody took Justine seriously.

When I reflect on this now, I realise what she was doing when she held that silence. I realise what it means to stay quiet after you have asked a question. Justine was listening. She held space and stayed open to an answer. She embodied the receptive energy of the feminine. It was powerful.

What Does It Mean To Listen?

We all think we understand what it means to listen, but do we?

I sat listening to a podcast last week. While I was listening an email came through to my phone and while still ‘listening’ I read it. There was a link to follow and I followed it. There were details to be entered into a form and I entered them. Then I returned my full attention to the podcast. To my surprise, I had no idea what they were talking about. I’d been ‘listening’, but somehow I couldn’t remember a word they’d said in the past 30 seconds. I’d heard the podcast playing, the words had reached my ears, but whatever that was, it wasn’t listening.

The listening I’m talking about here, in connection to leadership, is the active kind; the engaged, and present kind. Listening as a generous focusing of your attention, an acknowledgment that you might learn something, an acceptance that the person opposite you may know things that you don’t.

Why Is Listening Important For Leadership?

1. Because You Don’t Have Eyes In The Back Of Your Head

When you’re focusing on the overall vision it’s impossible to also keep track of all the small details. Even if you’re skilled at zooming in and zooming out again, you’re not an expert at everything and you don’t see things from every potential angle. Eliciting and listening to feedback, and insight, from others allows you to understand a different perspective and to see around corners.

2. Because Your People Need Support

The art of active listening creates a safe and supportive environment, which is essential if you want to nurture the innovation and creativity that’s required for any business or organisation to thrive today. Listening to your employees, team members or partners provides the gentle support, which is needed when facing the uncertainty and vulnerability that is part and parcel of all great innovation.

3. Because It’s Motivating To Be Held Accountable

Those deathly silences on conference calls weren’t comfortable. When it was awkward for the team member being questioned, it was awkward for all of us. It was during the following meeting though, that the real results would show. Everybody would step up to their responsibility. We would all be motivated to do better, to wipe out the memory of the last call. Difficult subjects would be proactively addressed before the questions could even be asked. The conversation would go smoothly. We’d walk away feeling like we were the dream team, despite the difficulties faced that week. As much as we all hated the thought of being put on the spot, of having a weakness in our area called out, it was also reassuring that what we did, was noticed. It made a difference if we did our job well or not, and if something hadn’t gone well, we knew we would have a chance to explain why. The gaping, and potentially threatening, silence was also an opening for a conversation; an invitation. 

How Do I Listen?

1. Ask The Right Question  

The way you ask a question has everything to do with listening. What kind of space are you creating? What are you calling forth from the other person? Justine’s questions would take a particular form. “Can you help me understand…” she would begin.

The way the question was crafted communicated a partnership, a sense of “we’re in this together, help me out with this, lets share” and, despite what she may have been thinking, there were no accusations in the questions. It was never “can you help me understand why you’re an incompetent moron?”

2. Ask The Next Right Question

If you’re really listening, it’s impossible to have a concrete plan. Each next question will relate to the previous answer given. You might have an idea of what you want to talk about, but approaching a conversation like a rigid questionnaire doesn’t leave much space for what the other person has to tell you. When you’re really listening things will be more fluid. A question will be sparked from the previous answer, or an answer might include a question. A conversation is in motion. It’s a dance. 

3. Shift Your Focus. Sink Into Listening Mode. Open Up

For me, I have to decide to listen. It’s a conscious practice. My mind wanders, I misunderstand somebody and then I decide: “I’m going to listen now”. It’s a switch that needs to be flipped, a mode I have to move in to. There’s a sinking that happens. Something descends, from my mind into the rest of my body. I settle myself. Other thoughts quieten down. I focus on whomever I’m listening to. I submit to the painful truth that I don’t know everything and I prepare to learn something new. It’s a feminine practice – receptive, but not remotely passive.

Practice Makes Permanent

Listening, in this active and alert way, is a complex skill and an art. In the same way there’s no perfect artist, there’s no perfect listener. But an impressive level of mastery can be attained with practice and there are endless opportunities for that.

If your child doesn’t seem quite themselves today ask them “are you okay?” then hold the silence.

When you meet a friend for coffee and ask, “how have you been?” take the opportunity to really listen; focus your attention and be present.

And when you’re about to flip your lid at your partner, sink into listening mode and re-phrase your question: “Can you help me understand why your dirty socks are on the floor next to the laundry basket instead of inside the laundry basket?” You never know, you might learn something new and arrive at a collaborative and innovative solution!

Rahma Dutton
Rahma is a freelance writer, who recently moved from corporate to shape up her own venture! She is passionate about personal development, storytelling, women's empowerment and hiking.