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Good Listeners Make Better Leaders

In a culture that considers speaking a sign of status and leadership, don’t underestimate the power of being a good listener

Last week, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to accept a presidential nomination from a major American political party. She’s done a lot to make it to this point, but commentators spent their time talking about the way she speaks.

“She’s not really at ease speaking in public, and it shows,” Andrew Sullivan wrote for New York magazine about her speech at Thursday’s Democratic National Convention. “I get that this is actually her appeal to some: that she’s a detail-oriented pol who works best off the public stage. But a president does need to connect, to inspire and to rally.” Vox’s Emily Crockett compiled a series of tweets from male pundits who dissected Clinton’s voice, pointing out an inherent double standard: “[Female leaders] have to walk a difficult line of being assertive but not too aggressive, likable but not too much of a pushover.”

While it’s true that Clinton doesn’t possess the oratorical chops of Barack and Michelle Obama or even her own husband Bill, Clinton’s run for the White House has prompted overdue conversation about the casual sexism inherent in what we associate with male and female leaders — but also what we consider to be “male” and “female” attributes (and what we tend to value in each). This point was driven home by Vox’s Ezra Klein, who asked those closest to Clinton — friends, colleagues, even rivals — to explain the Hillary that they knew. “Every single person brought up, in some way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns,” he wrote. “Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens.”

She listens.

Our society prizes talking over listening. Talking is assertive, active and masculine, while a person who’s thought to be a good listener can also be perceived to be a bit more passive, even feminine. As Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguist, told Klein, “Listening is something women value almost above everything else in relationships. The biggest complaint women make in relationships is, ‘He doesn’t listen to me.’”

Anyone who watches the endless blabbing on sports panel shows or political roundtables can attest to this phenomenon — everyone aggressively yells over everyone else so that they can sound smartest. Nobody involved is that interested in listening, because that suggests weakness.

Klein notes that this dynamic exists in presidential elections as well, to the detriment of candidates like Clinton who are more adept listeners than they are speakers. “[P]residential campaigns are built to showcase the stereotypically male trait of standing in front of a room speaking confidently,” he writes, “and in ways that are pretty deep, that’s what we expect out of our presidential candidates. Campaigns built on charismatic oration feel legitimate in a way that campaigns built on deep relationships do not.”

With Clinton on the cusp of reaching the White House, it’s time to stop underrating the merits of listening — a skill that shouldn’t be thought of as the weaker alternative to speaking, despite it being difficult to display publicly. If anything, listening has its own power — it can even make speaking that much more effective. In the give-and-take of conversation, the two are inextricably linked — you can’t do one well without being good at the other.

“We live in a very noisy culture,” says Quentin Dunne, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Southern California, “and I feel like, a lot of times, there is a deep, implicit cultural bias against introverts. It’s assumed if there are two people — one of whom is very self-expressive and very talkative and sociable, and then another one who’s a little bit more low-key, a little more reserved, not quite so quick to reveal their feelings — that there’s something wrong with the second person, [who] needs to be lifted up to the model of the first person. I think this is very, very unfortunate and very unfair.”

Dunne has witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. “Very well-intentioned and loving parents bring their 14- or 15-year-old sons or daughters to me, and they say, ‘We want him or her to open up more, to express their feelings more, to make friends more readily,’” he tells me. “At a certain point, I really have to say to the parents, ‘You know, there’s nothing wrong with your child. They’re just a little more introverted.’”

While some parents see it as a character flaw, to Dunne, it’s a hidden strength. “One of the things about introverts,” he says, “is that they can be very, very good listeners.”

Sometimes that hesitancy to speak can be learned — especially for women. As part of a series of New York Times essays in early 2015, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton professor Adam Grant explored why women speak less than their male counterparts at work, citing a 2012 study of U.S. senators conducted by Yale psychologist Victoria L. Brescoll that found “powerful women are in fact correct in assuming that they will incur backlash as a result of talking more than others.” As a result, listening can be perceived as what a person is forced to do after being defeated by the more powerful person in the conversation. Listening, we’ve all decided, is not a choice — it’s the lowlier option, thrust upon the loser.

But listening isn’t as easy as it, pardon the pun, sounds. The best listeners aren’t just sitting there quietly absorbing the other person’s words. In fact, the most confident leaders turn listening into a way to engage with others.

Last month in Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, who run a leadership development consultancy, published “What Great Listeners Actually Do,” arguing that many of us assume we’re good listeners, when in reality we’re sorta terrible at it. Zenger and Folkman write that management advisers often encourage their clients to believe that effective listening simply means “to remain quiet, nod and ‘mm-hmm’ encouragingly, and then repeat back to the talker something like, ‘So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is… .’”

Perhaps those reactions are meant to signal that you’re listening, but they don’t mean you are. Zenger and Folkman write that despite these typical cues, “recent research that we conducted suggests that these behaviors fall far short of describing good listening skills.” Working with data from almost 3,500 participants, they determined what qualities the best listeners had in common.

“[W]hat these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting.”

That’s all well and good, but what about this old belief that speaking is more powerful than listening? It’s nice to be thought of as a good listener — to be thought of as empathetic and supportive of others — but how do you convey strength or confidence if you’re not the one speaking?

Klein dissects this by suggesting that Clinton’s ability to be a good listener — to be able to build coalitions through trust and understanding — is a crucial component as a leader. He spoke to Mickey Kantor, the chair of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, who told him, “In terms of a president’s work, when crises come, you better have good staff around and be able to listen and understand them. Not just hear the words people are saying but really hear what the implications are. That’s where she’s good. In fact, she’s better than anyone I’ve ever worked with.”

Barbara Rocha runs a communication training firm in Pasadena and is the author of Getting Over Yourself. As the book’s title suggests, Rocha believes that successful speaking isn’t about conveying power but rather forging a connection.

Asked if there’s such a thing as the perfect speaking voice, Rocha says, “Winston Churchill’s voice was not great. There are people who have done really well with not-such-great voices. The component that makes people listen is if they feel like they’re being listened to. The mental effort that it takes to be in the moment is what will bring you success. When I’m in the moment, when I’m talking to you, you know it. Because I’m listening to you.”

That may seem paradoxical — How can you be listening when you’re speaking? — but it’s a technique she instills in her clients when they’re about to do some public speaking. “If you’re the speaker, it still needs to be, in your mind, a two-way conversation,” she explains. “I really do teach people that you need to see it as a conversation. You’re finding out, ‘Who is in that audience? What are they interested in? What are they against? How do they feel about you? How do they feel about your subject?’”

Rocha acknowledges that talking often is a way for the speaker to gain status. Consequently, speaking is popularly associated with achieving something or pushing an agenda. But, she notes, “A person that feels that they need status is thinking, ‘What impression am I making? How am I going to come out on top?’ You’re not fully invested in the conversation. There will be people in the audience who will be awed by that and go, ‘Oh, gosh, what an amazing leader.’ But there will be at least a third of the audience thinking, ‘He is so full of it.’”

Speakers who aren’t also actively listening do so at their peril. Perhaps the most famous recent example was during the 1992 presidential campaign at a town-hall debate that featured Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, President George H.W. Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot. A woman in the audience asks the three men, “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”

Bush speaks first, talking broadly about interest rates and his grandkids but not really ever answering the woman’s question. (Also not helping: Cameras caught him sneaking a look at his watch while she spoke, creating an impression that he was either bored or impatient.) When it was Clinton’s turn to answer, he asks the woman a question: “Tell me how it’s affected you again. You know people who’ve lost their jobs and lost their homes?”

It’s now seen as a pivotal moment in the campaign, drawing a crucial distinction between the two candidates. Bush was out-of-touch, while Clinton actually cared. Bush was talking; Clinton was listening.

“Anybody that has worked for President Clinton will tell you that his ability to connect is definitely a combination of both advisers, but also natural instincts, and probably natural instincts trumping even the advice,” David Mercer, who helped out on Bill’s campaign, told The Huffington Post in 2012. Mercer remembers that the former president’s preparations for a debate included factoring in the moderator and the audience — to use Rocha’s terminology, he would “listen” by asking himself who these people were and what their concerns might be. For Bill Clinton, connection was everything.

But eventually, you’re going to have to speak. And cultivating the discipline to be a good listener can help inform what you’ll say when it’s your time to talk. This is something Dunne faces every day as a therapist, a job that some assume requires sitting back and just listening to a client vent. He sees his work as a mix of listening and speaking — or, as he puts, it, “a dance between the masculine and the feminine.”

“I don’t recall people specifically telling me that I was a good listener,” he says. “What I do remember about myself — and from what I’ve heard from others — is that I was very curious. Maybe listening came as a byproduct of that. But when I was growing up, people always remembered me as someone who was very curious, very interested in people’s stories.”

To that end, Dunne cites Barack Obama’s 2010 unveiling of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. In his remarks to the press, Obama said, “Elena is respected and admired not just for her intellect and record of achievement, but also for her temperament, her openness to a broad array of viewpoints, her habit — to borrow a phrase from Justice [John Paul] Stevens — of understanding before disagreeing, her fair-mindedness and skill as a consensus builder.”

“Understanding before disagreeing” — listening before talking. That compliment paid to Kagan resonated with Dunne.

“That [approach] is probably not the dominant cultural norm,” he says of Kagan’s style. “There’s a lot more of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, and now let me tell you why.’”

Listening may not be as prized as speaking. But Kagan is clear proof that being a thoughtful listener isn’t an impediment to success. As Dunne says, “The woman is now sitting on the Supreme Court.”