Listen Up!


Contrary to what many might think (and many practice), the most important job of a leader is not to speak, preach, direct or advise….

The most important job of a leader is to listen.

In a recent interview I did with management guru Tom Peters, he revealed the four most important words in business leadership are “What do you think?”

Tom said listening should be a leader’s full-time profession. They should be the professional gatherer of input, ideas, feedback, opinion, perspective and personal experience in order to make informed, well-thought-through leadership decisions.

Richard Branson once said to me, “If you are a good leader, you are a good listener.”

This is true for everyone in every aspect of life, but it’s one of the most neglected skills I observe every day. I am always fascinated by how poorly people listen. There are many ways people invalidate and hurt their relations with others by their lack of listening skill.

Here are a few…

The Offenders. These people are the worst. They make it clear you are so unimportant or they are so bored by your conversation that they look at something else while you talk (BlackBerry, e-mail, brochure, someone else over your shoulder, anywhere else but directly in your eyes).

It is well-known that one of Bill Clinton’s most compelling traits is his ability to listen deeply to whoever is speaking to him, no matter who else or how many other people are in the room. It is said that if he is talking with someone, he won’t even break eye contact to reach for his glass of water. He will feel his way to it, but he will never, ever break eye contact. He treats you and makes you feel like the most important person on the planet when you are talking. We all should strive to be that influential.

The Intruders. These are people who can’t be bothered to let you finish your sentence before cutting you off, figuring out (falsely) what you were going to say, and giving your their interrupted opinion.

The Blockheads. They spend the conversation thinking about what to say rather than listening at all. They will scan the conversation, lock onto a point they want to make and shut off hearing you at all so they don’t lose their mental point—making it obvious with their facial expressions and body language that they are impatiently waiting for you to (finally) take a breath or end your (dang) sentence. They then respond, and you realize they didn’t listen to you and missed the point completely.

The Egoists. Instead of listening to you and caring about your story, your feelings and experience, they “me-ize” your comments and respond with their similar experience, problem or yarn.

These are the most fun to watch (and most common), as people will volley from person to person changing the conversation to them rather than listening and engaging the original storyteller.

Recognize anyone in the above? Friends, colleagues, family members—yourself?

Jim Collins said this of his mentor, one of the most respected leadership authorities and the father of modern management theory, Peter F. Drucker:
“He was driven not by the desire to say something, but by the desire to learn something from every student he met—and that is why he became one of the most influential teachers most of us have ever known.”

If you want to be a person of great influence, if you want to teach people, motivate them, inspire them and lead them, then learn to listen.

My advice:
1. Talk less. Listen more.
2. Make fewer statements. Ask more questions.

Start with Tom’s suggestion: “What do you think?”
I challenge you to ask that question at least a dozen times before the week is out.

You might also follow that up with a couple of other questions, like:
“How do you mean?”
“Why do you say that?”
“How do you feel about that?”

Oh, and then really LISTEN UP! Don’t be an Offender, Intruder, Blockhead or Egoist. Listen so intently that the other person feels they are the most important person in the world while they are speaking.

What do you do to make people feel heard, validated and important while they are talking? What are your best listening practices? Share your ideas in the comments below.



90 responses to “Listen Up!”

  1. […] A good listening habit can be all it’s needed to be successful in every aspect of life. You will always walk out of a conversation with a valuable lesson if you listen and you will go with no more if you do all the talking.  The more one listen, the more learned s/he will be. That’s why all leaders are a good listener. […]

  2. I love this. When you just let people talk, you can really find out a ton of information. Being a leader and building relationships takes a lot of listening. It is learned. I am always working on this and appreciate the reminder.

  3. I agree with your point. Dead on. But I have a crazy question, how do you ask a good question? I seem to be lacking in this area. So often I am attempting to get the person to talk more and they end up answering with just a quick response. Example, I ask my kids, ‘how was your day’, answer ‘fine, or ok’. Over the years of course I changed this instead to something else instead like ‘what was something funny that happened at school’. And that usually gets them going. Hopefully you see my point. I think asking questions is complicated an art form.

  4. YES, I couldn’t agree with you more. If leaders really listen and understand where their direct reports are both personally and professionally, it helps the organization tremendously. I find that this ends up saving the leader time in the long run because they know exactly where those who report to them are in their life and with their work priorities. When the leader stays in regular communication with their employees & truly listens, he or she keeps a pulse on that department without having to be so involved in the day to day work. The best leaders I know have frequent conversations with their staff and hear every word. They are also the ones who are truly leading from a high level and able to oversee vs. be involved and directing each task. Great reminder on listening, can’t wait to share your post!

  5. I call the Egoist the “One Upper” you told your story so now im going to top that. I have to admit i used to be this way, until i realized it was annoying and i was just driving people away. I can now see this and am thankful i changed.

    I think that is comes down to caring, listening just means you care about the person and what they have to say.

  6. what if people are talking none-sense and are wasting your time?should you still continue listening?shouldn’t this be taken in context?

  7. I love this didactic tip, i am a research student, i suffer from listening negligence but the question how can we persuade people to concentrate?

  8. Most of us have 2 ears and 1 mouth… so really, we should listen twice as much as we talk. Great topic

  9. We have two ears and one mouth… so really, we should listen twice as much as we talk. Great post.

  10. Years ago, when I taught my first ever 6 day class in career life planning, I was as eager as an rookie might be, wanting to give everything to my class of 18. For the whole week, I was ready with an answer to any question, for people had come from all over the country to take this course.

    At the end, this man came up to me and said, “Judy, this was a great class and worth it totally but I have some feedback for you. Remember when I asked you that question about my resume? Well, you answered me too quickly.”

    Dumbfounded I asked, “What do you mean?” I was surprised, after all, wasn’t I there to answer questions? How could I have answered anythingn “too quickly?”

    “Well,” he continued, “I know that you must have answered that question 1000 times before, but you need to remember that it was the first time I ( emphasis on the “I”) ever asked that question.

    So, had you taken some time and paused, and looked as if you were really listening to me, I would have felt that you were paying attention to me and not just offering some pat answer to my question.”

    That happened to me over 30 years ago and I feel it as if it were today. He was asking me to listen to him, not to show off how I had the answers at the ready, which as rookie, I oh so wanted for him.

    Lesson: Listening means taking the time, not just having the answers.

  11. Hi Darren, great post…I have been a long time reader of SUCCESS but only really tuned in online this weekend. This is a wonderful post and many of us (me included) can find where we are in the descriptions outlined. Another area where is pays to listen is online. Chris Brogan once shared with me the 30-60-30 mindset. Spend 30 minutes a day listening online, 60 minutes a day commenting and 30 minutes publishing. It is fair to say that listening matters online as well.


    Stuart Crawford
    Calgary, AB

  12. Thanks a lot Darren for sharing this, I was an intruder in conversations until I read your piece, now I know better and have taken my correction…. Once more thanks.

  13. Darren,
    Great post. This may have already been mentioned in one of the comments above (I didn’t read them all) but a very useful routine for me, after asking “What are your thoughts?” is to repeat back the key points of what has been shared and ask, “Do I understand this correctly?”

    I have a few sayings that I have used for a long time in management…
    1) “If you want to become a great communicator, start by shutting your mouth and opening your eyes, ears, and mind.”
    2) “Listen not only to the ideas of your employees but to the means with which they plan to implement those ideas.”

    Thanks for sharing,

  14. Ask. Listen. Repeat. :)

    The answer to your question is actually why I added the first question … “how are you?”. By taking a personal interest (listening included) you are more likely to get real answers.

    It is implicit when asking what someone thinks, but not complete to show you genuinely care.

  15. Learned from Tom Hopkins:

    Listen intently, as if you are about to hear the winning lottery numbers and you would only hear them once.

  16. Getting real answers requires exactly what you posted in your blog, Darren.

    1. You must listen, intently. When you do, people will open up.
    2. You must ask follow-up questions to encourage a greater exchange of ideas.

    Over time, people will see you as someone who really cares, and the ideas and concerns will flow freely.


  17. Darren.. Awesome article….. :-)
    I make sure I have nothing going on in my mind when I listen and at the same time an eye contact until the other is done with the conversation.

  18. Darren,
    Ouch again! I wish I had some wisdom to share, but I don’t.So since this is the best thing I’ve read today, I will stay quiet,keep reading your posts, and try to listen.

  19. Dear Daren,

    Thank you for teaching and sharing with us “Listen Up”. I think for the most part, most of us have a
    have some of the Offenders, the Intruders, the Blockheads the Egoists when it comes to be a good listener. Reading your post made me take some time alone to “listen to myself”.
    You gave me the wisdom to think that no matter if I find myself with the offender, the intruder, the blockhead or the egoist, I am the one that have to “Listen Up”.

    Thanks again and God Bless!

  20. Darren – great post. I’m making my way through Maxwell’s “Everyone Communicates, Few Connect” right now and the subject of being a good listener when hoping to connect is crucial.

    I started with SUCCESS in February and am just now making my way through DB10Y. Like others in the past, I cannot access worksheet sets 7-8 (actual worksheets 11-12). Can someone email them to me please?

    Thanks for all you do – can’t wait for “The Compound Effect”!


  21. Thanks for sharing this, Deep. Great idea to write down “what they want and what they actually want” after a conversation. Makes you remember the conversation and really focus during it so you have something to write down! :)

  22. Great tip about closing your eyes when on the phone, Dawn! You are very right, there are too many distractions around us everyday and closing your eyes and eliminating those will help you focus what the other person is saying much more easily. Thanks and have a great weekend, too!

  23. Darren,

    Excellent advice. I feel I do a good job at listening but can always get better. I will start now with my family at dinner.

    Keep up the great work.

    Barry Schlouch

  24. Here’s another benefit of allowing others to talk while you listen; in adversarial situations, which we all encounter occasionally, giving your opponent enough “rope” often results in them “hanging themselves” with their own words. A few years ago, I actually won a court case by utilizing this strategy.

  25. Hi Darren
    It reminds me of something that Brian Tracy said in his book The Psychology of Selling.Whenever you ask a question and listen attentively to the answer, you are controlling the directional flow of the sales conversation. Whenever you are talking in response to a question from the prospect , the prospect has taken control of the conversation.
    It all comes down to being a leader by being a servent

  26. Hi Darren
    It reminds me of something that Brian Tracy said in his book The Psychology of Selling.Whenever you ask a question and listen attentively to the answer, you are controlling the directional flow of the sales conversation. Whenever you are talking in response to a question from the prospect , the prospect has taken control of the conversation.
    It all comes down to being a leader by being a servent.

  27. Guilty, guilty, guilty, of all the above.
    Recognized the fact, since I just couldn’t love
    My father in-law, especially, a bore to say the least
    Thought him a nuisances, a bragging type of beast.
    Then I played with magnets, and saw two likes repel-
    That is when I awaken to the fact I was in hell….
    Had to turn my eyes inward, to find the way out
    It was changing ones self, that changed me without a doubt.
    Thanks to my son who cared enought to share
    The information you wrote, that is printed above here

  28. Hi Darren! Thank you — this was wonderful!
    As an “off-the-chart” Sanguine listening is really difficult for me and I, too, have been all 4, I am ashamed to say. It’s a daily process….but the two things that work for me are:
    1) When in person, ask questions back as in “I want to be sure I understand your point…are you saying………..?”, etc.
    2) When on the phone…..are you ready for this?? I close my eyes!!!! In a room with a computer, books, blackberry, momentos of trips, gifts from friends…there is too much to look at and being so easily distracted I find that if I close my eyes I hear every word and when I reply it is more concise. I know that seems silly but it works for me!
    Have a lovely Memorial Day Weekend :-)

  29. This came at an awesome time in my life. About a month ago, I came up with an acronym KMS (Keep Mouth Shut) after blurting out in a conversation that I should have only listened. This just confirms to me that I need more KMS in my life. Thanks for your encouragement!

  30. I love this article! Listening is indeed the key to all successful relationships. The art of not listening is the root cause of many break-ups. Once a person learns to listen, they learn to respond, this creates a real conversation and builds solid communication.

  31. Thanks for the great post. This is very helpful to anyone in a relationship.
    There’s nothing that your spouse will trrasure more than the fact that you are
    willing and able to just listen to whatever they have to share with you.

  32. Terrific post Darren. Thanks for the insightful thoughts. Another effective way to improve listening skills that I found is currently working for me (as I can be quite the talkative bird) is learning a new language.

    I am currently teaching English abroad, and while learning the local language here, I found that language learning forces you to hone clear thinking, be aware of your own language, and to listen to others in a whole new level…


  33. Hi,

    This is one of the best post I have ever read. Time and again I have myself felt about my problems while listening. To be frank I am a blockhead, egoist as well and I try hard to overcome it. But sometimes, especially in a meeting it creates little insecure feeling and I give up.
    If there is any solution to this situation then I would be most happy.

    Still it was so nice to read reflection of my thoughts.


  34. Great insight Darren!

    Very true; we all need to listen more and talk less. I believe the world would be a better place if people would learn to respect each other’s opinion.

  35. Darren,

    Thank you for the helpful article.
    I’ve grown a bit of a reputation for being a chatter box, and I seem to “chat people up” where ever I go. My friends comment that I can seemingly talk to anybody and they comment on how difficult it is for them to strike up a conversation with a stranger. When they ask me how I do it, I simply tell them to ask a question with genuine interest. People love to tell you about their interests, and I thoughtfully listen and ask more questions and I usually find I have lots in common with whom ever I’m speaking with.

    Another question I’ve found that is very important is “How can I help you?” or “Is there anything I can do for you?” I encountered this after speaking with two young Mormon Missionaries who came by my door one late afternoon. They ended our visit with that very question. I politely replied “I’m fine, but thank you for asking.” After I had closed the door, I realized I had not reciprocated the question to them – How awful of me! I opened the door and yelled to the boys if there was anything I could do for THEM? Turns out they were both very thirsty and so we all enjoyed ice water in the kitchen and chatted a bit more. That encounter was a nice reminder to ask what you can do for another.


  36. Argh! Listening has got to be the hardest thing when you know you are SOOO interesting. Ha! I work hard at this. I like the questions that you specified. When my best friend offers an idea he often begins with, “How would you feel about.. . . ?” That’s why he quickly became my best friend. He was the first person in the whole world that actually asked me how I felt – and then took my opinion into consideration. Now, I try to do this for others. It’s not all about me after all! Sigh.

  37. great article – love the part about Mr. Clinton – i’m going to adopt that at my next social event. What i like to do before every social event is repeat the following and it somehow helps me get into listen mode and more importantly connection mode – i repeat the following after i put my attention on someone, but not obtrusively:
    just like me this person is seeking happiness in his/her life
    just like me this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life
    just like me this person has known sadness, loniness and despair in his/her life
    just like me this person is seeking to fulfill his/her needs
    just like me this person is learning about life

    I can’t tell you guys how much energy, humbleness and readiness to connect and listen i get from this simple/yet effective exercise – try it out:)

  38. Darren,

    Great post! I generally like to do the Bill Clinton thing and just keep eye contact and show the person you are engaged in the conversation and interested in what they have to say. Being in customer service for many years I’ve also found that repeating back key points the person brought up and asking questions around those points both lets them know you were listening, and helps you understand them better. You may encourage them to elaborate on something of value and hey, you might learn something…




  39. Darren,

    Thanks for your post. I have had the personal experience of working with an American lawmaker who is an excellent listener. He would listen to his visitors (mostly constituents, lobbyists, or peers) in rapt attention. When they departed, the Senator would take out his notebook and write in a one-liner “what they want and what they actually want.” He had that amazing skill of intuiting the hidden agenda of others. And I guess, bad politicians would sum up as “what’s in it for me?” Good listening skill is a significant component of high emotional intelligence and super-achievers usualy have that in tonnes. I like your mentioning about Bill Clinton.

  40. This is great advice. I think i am one of those people that sin because they dont listen people as carefully as they should. But I am intending to change that from now on. It is true you learn and get better faster if you listen to people more and you speak less.

  41. what do you think?… about what?… the scripture James 1:19…does this principle apply here?

  42. Darren,

    Asking questions is so important but asking the right ones make all the difference. If we want to find out the right answers then start asking the right quesitons instead of the wrong ones. I like open end questions because it allows people to speak freely. Then, like you said, listen. Another great post, Darren.

  43. Hi Darren,

    Love this post. There is a reason why GOD gave us two ears and one mouth. I’m always looking to grow in this area. For me effective listening is a crucial in both personal and business relationships, it’s a make it or break it deal. Last year, I stopped dating a really nice man because he was a horrible listener. He fit right in with “The Blockhead” category. Yikes…

    My best listening practices are as follow:

    1. Give the person you are listening to your undivided attention. Make them feel like they are the center of the universe and maintain eye contact. :-)

    2. Always let the person finish speaking, nothing worse than being interupted.

    3. Pay attention to non-verbal cues with regards to body language.

    4. Ask questions to clarify certain points like the one’s you shared from Tom Peters.

    And here’s my favorite quote on listening from Ernest Hemingway, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”

    Thank you for another great post.

    All the best,

    Vanessa Michele Garcia

  44. Thanks alot Darren, oh my God, this bad habit has really been worrying me of late. May be you are God sent to encourage me that i can really change. Thanks alot. You really inspire me to be the best i can be!!!

  45. Thank you for sharing this so true statement, Am always anxious to recieve this messages I lock books were I find my self so this is a great littpla parts that I can take very deep inside of my head-.

  46. I Have head you teach this valuable concept before and I took your advice and really listened not only with my ears, but with my mind the results have been phenominal in that I now fully engage myself in conversations and I’m practising leading with questioning.I have found that active listening makes people want to open up as long as they can find a good listener.

  47. One of my bad habits is worrying that I will forget the reply I want to give while another person is talking. I end up focusing more on what I want to say next instead of listening 100%…..BAD!
    Many months ago, I did one of Darrens’ exercises and asked 3 close friends their opinions of both my good and bad traits. My closest friend did mention that although I ‘appear’ to be listening, she knows I am not 100% because I end up repeating the same question I had already asked…busted!!
    Thanks for helping me to become a better listener!!!
    ‘You Can’t Change What You Don’t Acknowledge’…forget who said it but it’s SO true!

  48. Excellent post, Darren.

    Here’s my suggestion for letting people be heard…

    Next time someone is speaking to you, close your mouth and very gently bring your upper teeth in contact with your lower teeth. As long as your teeth are touching, you can’t speak and the person speaking to you will be amazed at how polite you are for not interrupting!

    Try it…it works.

  49. You have hit the nail squarely on the head, and put it flush with the wood:-)

    As I am sure you are aware, there are a number of other types of offenders out there. One very common example is the leader who is so driven to accomplish the task at hand, that he/she is incapable and unwilling to listen to others. The Driven Driver. Get it done, come hell or high water…i, e., “throttle up, Challenger”. CEO’s with this mindset burn people out and put others at risk.

    The flip side is that effective leaders need to be able to put effective brakes on the listening, because given the opportunity, some people will talk forever.

  50. Darren, great post! I have been all four – at the same time! I was suffering big time from this problem. However, I’ve been working on it! I am! I am! I was having a conversation last night and I said to myself, “Stephanie, don’t say a word until she’s done. Listen.” I had to do the same thing just this morning while involved in another conversation. It’s a concentrated effort for me. I’m working on it…

  51. I love this post! Listening is an endangered species…at least for many of us. I found out the hard way to benefits of listening when I was in sales. The more I talked the less sales I made.

    I know use listening as my cornerstone for my coaching business. Many times the pause or lack of response on my part will open up the space for the client to continue to talk. If I jumped right in with a question or statement I would have taken away their enlightened moment.

    So yes….listening is valuable tool to have and I would add the discipline of silence as well.

    Thank Darren or sharing this powerful message.

  52. I am so posting this on FB. My goodness, how the world we be a better place if we just took the time to seek first to understand…Leadership requires influence and influence requires buy-in from the follower that this leader “gets me and cares and makes me feel special and a part of something special.” Leaders make those around them feel as if each person matters and makes a difference. That doesn’t just come from talk-talk-talking. Thanks Darren!

  53. Great points!

    I would say that two questions are needed to bring full value to a relationship and organization.

    1. How are you?
    2. What do you think?

  54. No where is this truth proven more profound that when rasing childern. I have 4 and when they came running up to me with a question or problem I would stop what I was doing (no matter what) and listen. Now as my children are entering adult hood they enter with a confidence that their ideas value to benifit the group. It always has. It wasn’t me that put the value there, it was there all along, they only requred an audience to express it to. The same would follow true of those we lead outside of the family unit. At times our people need to be heard, out of which are fed the insights, ideas, and ambitions that can benfit the whole group.

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