Why the Best Leaders Get Quiet

Rarely do we envision a silent leader. But one of the most valuable qualities in leadership is the ability to listen with respect and presence.

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Some months ago, my ten-year-old son lightly bumped his toe as we were hurriedly packing his bag to go to his dad’s for the week. It’s a regular routine given our amicable shared custody arrangement. Instead of continuing the task of packing, he crumpled to the floor in tears complaining about how much it hurt. In the past I would have insisted he stand up, brush it off, and finish packing. I’ve learned in recent years that telling my sons, or anyone for that matter, how to feel, is not my job. A big part of my job is to hold space, pay attention, and with some level of true presence, listen. Turns out this applies at work too.

What Does a Leader Sound Like?

When asked to envision a “leader,” you might imagine someone with a confident presence. Someone who is a comfortable public speaker. Someone who can hold a room (or a Zoom) with their spoken words providing direction or encouragement. I often think of the leaders I’ve supported in various C-level roles as the captain at the bow of a ship, navigating hazard-filled waters. Eyes on the horizon, anticipating the opportunities and challenges ahead. Getting us to our destination, yet keeping us safe. Rarely do we envision a leader as silent. But in fact, one of the most valuable attributes of a leader is their ability to listen–and even better, listen with what I refer to as “deep presence.” 

This can be challenging for people who are natural leaders, even more for leaders working in a remote work environment. We are quick to move from idea to idea with some conviction that we know the right way, and how to guide others based on what we already know. We talk. They listen. 

The best leaders are often those who do an exceptional job of considering the expertise, perspectives, and inputs from those around them.

Not so fast. The best leaders are often those who do an exceptional job of considering the expertise, perspectives, and inputs from those around them. This happens by listening to our colleagues and peers, not directing them. And not just hearing, but really hearing others. 

Are We Really Listening?  

Listening in today’s world is not as simple as sitting still, making eye contact, and hearing someone as they speak. In our remote-first world, we typically “listen” through a two-dimensional screen. We can see faces and hear voices, but little else. Worse, we can’t really make true eye contact (given the nature of cameras and eyes on screens not being in the same place) and are often distracted by myriad things going on in the physical space we occupy and the screens we use. This means we need to deeply tune in to our team members and read signals, often without the benefit of in-person cues, while also attempting to ensure they feel heard. 

I asked my son about this topic recently: “How do you know when someone is really listening to you?” His answer surprised me: “When you listen to me when I’m asking you for something at the same level you listen when I am responding to a request of yours.”

Ouch! This is so simple and so true! As leaders we often reach out to retrieve information or provide direction. Do we listen enough? We can all probably do more to tune in and hear our colleagues.

The Power of Listening

One approach I’ve been developing lately is what I refer to above as deep presence. This is listening in the most multi-dimensional way possible, looking for non-verbal cues that come through even a small screen. When we notice and act on small things, it can mean a world of difference for a valued team member. 

Listening at its best is not just being silent and not interrupting, but giving a team member our full attention, studying their communication cues such as whether they are on-time, early, or late; observing body language and eye movements; and experimenting with various ways to connect and understand team members.

For example, we all appreciate different forms of recognition for work well done. For some, it is a compensation raise or bonus. For others it might be a promotion or public praise (in a large meeting or a social network platform). Yet for some, it could be something more subtle like a personal note expressing gratitude for working extra hours over a weekend with specific detail around how this effort makes a difference. Getting this wrong can actually cause more harm than the intended good, so it’s on us to do our best to learn what works for each person with whom we collaborate and lead.

Tuning in to the needs of our colleagues with deep presence or deep listening can make the difference between a fulfilled and grateful team and a distant and unhappy team.

Tuning in to the needs of our colleagues with deep presence or deep listening can make the difference between a fulfilled and grateful team and a distant and unhappy team. And this is not just a job for the human resources or people team. It is upon all leaders to lead by example and strengthen our listening behaviors as much as we fine-tune our speaking skills.

When my son fell apart over a bumped toe, I ended up sitting down with him and just listening. After several minutes of hearing him, really feeling with him, I was able to empathize. “Yeah, honey, living in two houses is often hard for me too. I get it. We’re going to continue doing our best. I love you.” Tears dried. We were late to tennis, I had to drop his bags off somewhere else, and a few other inconveniences, but it didn’t matter. And the next week we went through the packing up ritual, I knew to leave a little extra time so we weren’t so rushed. He never asked, but something told me that spaciousness was exactly what he needed. 

3 Practices for Deep Presence in Conversations

  1. Body: How we orient our bodies affirms our focus and presence when giving someone our full attention. Eye contact is an obvious attention tool, but the rest of our body sends us and those with whom we are engaging signals as well. Facing someone directly, not fidgeting, maintaining a relaxed yet upright posture, and allowing our facial expressions to move and react naturally in the moment all serve to tell others we are truly present with them.
  2. Mind: Deep presence is a practice. Just as we sit in meditation to simply be in the present moment, not the past or the future, we can do the same when communicating with someone. It takes discipline to bring our attention back when our minds wander into what has happened or what might happen. When our attention is focused, we are deeply present and the person with whom we are engaging will know and feel it.
  3. Energy: Taking a moment in solitude and/or silence, or as we say at SIY Global, “a moment to arrive,” before meetings and other communications can result in clearer, calmer, more focus-ready attention. Perhaps this happens naturally before a public talk or something difficult: Pause. Close your eyes. Take one deep full breath. Feel the breath fill your lungs. Pause. Slowly exhale. Feel your being and the energy that you bring to this very moment and conversation. One breath or one minute of a subtle orientation can have a huge impact and help ground us before engaging.



How to Practice Listening Without Getting Defensive 

Taking the time to listen to how another person feels—without immediately and sometimes impulsively reacting—creates the space for both parties to feel heard. Try this exercise to strengthen your active listening skills. Read More 

  • Jennifer Wolkin
  • April 6, 2021