The Power (and Responsibility) of Leadership Level Listening

Hemingway once said, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

Unfortunately, it is hard to disagree that truly listening to people is a lost art form. Too often, we are moving onto the next meeting, distracted by our smart phones, or caught up in the next task. Here, but not “hearing,” we can not live in the moment. As a result, we are missing opportunities to not only be present for the individual who is speaking, but to act on what is being said.

With this issue of PeopleTalk focusing on mental health, how does failing to listen—and to act—affect those wrestling with mental health issues? Let’s explore two programs: one to build listening skills, the other built by a skilled listener who saw a need to better support individuals struggling to cope with stressful critical incidents.

(Em)Powerful, Curious Questions
The hallmark of an effective leader is their ability to ask questions—rather than giving advice—and then to listen to the answers. Managers give advice; leaders ask questions. Developing this skill will change your working relationships and empower employees to take ownership for their work (and even their thinking).

In a program called “Front Line Leadership”, leaders at all levels learn how to use powerful, curious questions. One example is changing simple yes/no questions to make them more productive.

“Is this an effective strategy for you?” so becomes “What makes this an effective strategy for you?” and “Is there more to be learned here?” opens up into “How can you double the learning in this experience?”

Powerful, curious questions have a number of salient characteristics; they aren’t attached to a particular path, they are open rather than closed, and they invite reflection. Ideally, they will set a mood of discovery and exploration.

Having asked good questions, good leaders will then make sure they listen effectively. Great leaders have the unique ability to listen to others without imposing their own thoughts. Instead, they focus their attention on what the person is saying and reflect back what they have heard without changing the meaning.

Active Listening in Action
The concept of active listening is well known. Here’s a simple example, followed by three active listening steps, to illustrate the concept:

“I didn’t feel like the cruise vacation lived up to the hype in the brochure. Neither the meals nor the cabin service was as good as promised. The local attractions and merchants, however, were inspiring and friendly.”

Reflecting Content: “To paraphrase, the cruise’s meal and services weren’t to your expectations but the local attractions and people met or exceeded your expectations.”
Reflecting Feeling: “It seems that you feel both disappointment and excitement about your trip.”
Reflecting Meaning: “You seem to have mixed emotions regarding the trip in its entirety.”

This simple approach by a leader helps the person focus on their situation and helps them to own and accept their own feelings. It is an important part of effective listening because words often have different meanings for different people and because many of us often become blinded by—or blind to—our emotions.

Responding in Kind
There are 5 keys to mastering a reflective response:

  • Listen for the basic message (content, feeling and meaning expressed by the speaker);
  • Look for confirmation of non-verbal and verbal cues when restating content;
  • Do not add to the speaker’s meaning or feelings;
  • Do not take the speaker’s topic in a new direction; and
  • Always be non-judgmental and non-directive.

A Case Study in “Resilient Minds”
Leadership level listening is often even more critical outside of a corporate environment. As to the impact of that leadership level listening in action, we can all think of examples from our own lives, and one in particular stands out for me in light of our mental health focus.

Lt. Steve Fraser has spent 20 years listening to his colleagues and direct reports. Over the course of his career as a firefighter with Vancouver Fire and Rescue, he has made it his mission to be present for those struggling to cope with traumatic incidents. He has built a reputation within the department as someone who will listen, and is regularly approached for his leadership and guidance. This is a guy who makes himself available; I’ve attended social events with Steve and have witnessed him taking calls from distraught firefighters who need to debrief after a difficult shift.

Steve did more than listen—he acted. He heard what was being said and had the courage to do something about the crisis of mental health he saw occurring in the fire department. In partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and his 40-person Critical Incident Stress Management Team, he built a program called “Resilient Minds” to equip those struggling with the tools necessary to cope.

As a result of his efforts, he was awarded the prestigious Firefighter of the Year award in 2017. More importantly, the program he helped build has been rolled out on a provincial level—with over 1200 firefighters benefitting to date.

Call to Action
According to the CMHA, by age 40, about 50 per cent of Canadians will have, or have had, a mental illness. Let this serve as a call to action for those who are in a leadership position to continue building their listening skills and making a positive difference for people by acting on what is shared. Programs like Resilient Minds and people like Steve Fraser have shown us what is possible when we take time to listen—and act.

Peter Saulnier, CPHR is a partner and Howie Outerbridge is vice president of client solutions with LoganHR, a full-service career transition, compensation and talent management firm and member of VF Career Management. For more information, visit

(PeopleTalk Spring 2018)




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