How Talking Less Makes You a Better Leader

How Talking Less Makes You a Better Leader


The question is, what does it take to be a leader who is a great communicator?

Research by Cognisco HR training organization in the UK in 2018 highlights that poor communication costs us around $37 billion per year. This boils down to approximately $26K per worker! In contrast, companies with leaders who are great communicators have nearly 50% higher returns.

The question is, what does it take to be a leader who is a great communicator? In his book, Master Leaders: Revealing Conversations with 30 Leadership Greats, George Barna sat down with 6 world renowned leaders and threw out the question, “What skill is perhaps the most necessary to be an effective leader?” The immediate response, almost in unison, was listening. They went on to talk about listening with the attitude that you could have your mind changed.

What if listening is more than an effective soft skill for healthy interpersonal communication, and actually a transformational tool to unleash effectiveness and productivity on your team. If leadership is about mobilizing people toward a shared objective, then it requires a leader to listen first in order to learn, and then to lead. We asked Dr. Steve Thalheimer, Superintendent of Elkhart Community Schools, where he has seen the power of listening in his leadership role in the world of education. He shares the following:

“I have found that listening involves asking important questions that need to be asked and then being open to hearing what people have to say. In assuming new roles or approaching a problem, I try to ask questions that seek information so that I can obtain a true lay of the land and then just listen as folks relate what is currently happening (or, as it may be, not happening). In assessing how things are going, it is the leader’s job to ask critical questions and be receptive to the feedback and results as they are. Once this data and these impressions are gathered, it is then incumbent on me to synthesize that into a coherent picture that moves people toward goals and mission.”

Research on the power of listening as a foundational skill for healthy communication supports what Dr. Thalheimer has shared. The true power of listening is nothing less than transformative. In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, researchers Guy Itzchakov and Avi Kluger discuss their research findings around listening in the workplace. Through their research, they observed that employees paired with quality listeners felt, “less anxious, more self-aware, and reported higher clarity about their attitudes on the topics.”

The evidence is clear and compelling: Listening opens the door to human connection and engagement that is essential for effective teamwork. And yet, when we focus on our lived-experiences in relationships and institutions, we see communication that has increasingly drifted into incessant talking, judging, shouting, or worse. Zeroing in on the challenges of true listening in our current cultural climate, Dr. Thalheimer states:

“The current tribalism that causes people to just dig in for their “side,” regardless of facts or reality, is the biggest challenge to listening and the enemy of communication. Instead of seeing someone as having a different opinion while guided by the best of intentions or informed by the bigger picture, some people choose to view others they differ with as foes to simply prove wrong or defeat.”

As Stephen Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.“ Over and over we see the results of leaders who take this approach – one that leads to disengaged staff and toxic cultures. If we agree that there is a deficit of true listening in our relationships, on our teams, and in the public square, and if we believe that listening is the secret sauce that makes authentic communication palatable and possible, then we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “How do my attitudes and actions open space for others to feel listened to and understood?”

Giving Dr. Thalheimer the last word, “People have to return to being flexible in their thinking and assuming the best in others, guided by empathy and respect.” Only then will we see the power of leadership unleashed among us.

Ritch Hochstetler, Chief Ideation Trailblazer at ULEAD

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