Deep Listening, by David Markwardt



By David Markwardt
September 1, 2009
Everyone wants to be heard.  From CEOs to small business owners, to youth to politicians, every person wants to be taken seriously, to be respected, and to be listened to by others.  Unfortunately the default mode of listening with most people tends to be critical and judgmental—listening to fix, advise, and solve. 
Many leaders are taught that it is their job to hear the problem, discern the issue, and then offer solutions that will resolve the problem, and if they don’t do this, they are not leading.  An assumption of this approach is that the listener knows what is best for the other person.  However, we all know that no two people walk the same path in life and what works for one person may not work for another person.  It is also true that the best and most well-intentioned advice often doesn’t lead to solutions and may lead to unintended consequences.  For example, the speaker may not develop his capacity for solving his own problems and the leader may create dependence.
It takes intense discipline to be present, receptive, and listen well.  Frequently great ideas do not come from leaders and the most vocal but from the everyman and everywoman who may be quietly doing their jobs.
So how does a leader ferret out those ideas since listening well is good, but isn’t enough?  Leaders need skill at asking powerful questions.  Examples of powerful questions are “Why does that matter to you?”  or “What about that is important to you?”  These questions will lead to more honest, revealing, and intimate answers and create connection between the two parties.  Good questions are often personal, ambiguous, and may even produce anxiety.  Part of the anxiety is related to accountability.  A powerful question demands that the person asking it is accountable for claiming his freedom and is accountable for his life.  A powerful question gives the speaker space to find his own way to the answer and in many cases, the answer isn’t as important as the asking is. 
Since leaders are expected to take action and get results, the challenge then is to balance the need to get things done with listening well and being present amid the frenetic demands of the workplace and the disorienting and blurred boundaries between personal and professional lives.  If leaders are to do their best work, they must develop habits of attending to who they are and how they want to be with others.   
All leaders can benefit from strengthening their “listening muscles” and learning how to ask powerful questions.   Deep listening requires practice, discipline, habits, and routines.

About Bruce MacAllister

Bruce MacAllister is the founder and Executive Director of Business Excellence Solutions. He holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Chemistry and Biology and a Juris Doctorate degree. He has over thirty years of experience working with people in conflict, and training and coaching people through conflict situations. He works nationally and internationally with a wide variety of clients, including national departments, research and development organizations, institutions of higher education, non-profits, and individual businesspeople. He has been an ombudsman, executive level manager, project and program manager, trainer, and attorney. Click the "About Us" page to see his full biography. (
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