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Listening to learn vs. listening to fix

(March 4, 2024 Newsletter)

I recently shared an article called “The New Rules of Executive Presence” and highlighted one notable finding, which has continued rattling around in my brain:

  • In the ten years between when the researcher first surveyed managers about communication traits associated with leaders, a new trait emerged in the top 3 that wasn’t even in the previous top 10: a “Listen to learn” orientation. 

Of course I was excited about this. I’ve been out there beating the “listening is a leadership skill” drum, sometimes in the company of likeminded professionals and sometimes alone.

What is (and isn’t) a “listen to learn” orientation?

To make it easier to understand, let’s contrast it against what I call a “listen to fix” orientation.

Wait, is there room to fix?

Absolutely! Please don’t mistaken any of the above as a belief that there aren’t right and wrong answers, or there’s no truth, or any other BS like that. As managers, plenty of time is spent correcting things that are just wrong.

  • But that’s exactly the point – your manager hat and leader hat are not the same. Simplistically, managing tends to involve solving more black-and-white situations, while leading typically means navigating complexity without straightforward answers based on limited information. The latter requires drawing on the wisdom of those around you.

  • As Stephen Covey says in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

Reorienting to a “listen to learn” orientation

Considering the rising expectation leaders face, this communication trait is critical (plus, isn’t just a good thing to know how to do?). So how can you develop this skill if it’s not your forte? To get started, here are some questions to consider:

  1. When have you connected dots, detected a pattern, or came up with a solution at work and then found out you were wrong?

  2. Who was the last person to change your mind? What did you learn in that process?

  3. What beliefs do you have to update to see learning as a valuable leadership quality?

  4. When you switch into fixing mode halfway through hearing a team member speak, what do you want to remind yourself in order to stay in learning mode? How will you keep that reminder top of mind?

Developing a “listen to learn” orientation

Finally, some practical points that can be useful whether you’re in a 1:1 or group setting.

  1. Get yourself in the mindset: Remind yourself that each person with whom you’re interacting is an inherently creative and resourceful person.

  2. Be curious: Challenge yourself to ask 3 questions before giving any answers. For example, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” “What options are you considering?” “What’s worked for you in the past?” “Are you looking for support or a solution from me?” “What else do I need to know in order to be helpful here?”

  3. Relish the learning: When you hear something that’s different than what you expected, celebrate that. Ask the person to explain their point of view in more detail and when you challenge back with your perspective, make it clear that you’re doing so in the name of coming together to the right answer, not to use your power to convince.

Final thought: You might want to also consider encouraging your team to develop this skill as well. As a leadership trait, it should not only be reserved for people with fancy titles and organizational authority. The more you work together to listen to learn, the better off you’ll be able to solve challenges as a team.

What other tactics have worked for you? Send them my way, and as always, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions or comments.


The Coaching Corner

Recharging before difficult interactions

Look at your schedule for the week ahead. What interactions do you anticipate will drain you?

Knowing that you’re at high risk for being short-tempered or conciliatory in that exchange can be a source of strength, since it means you can prep for it accordingly. So instead of dreading it, create the space to “fill up your tank” before and after by:

  • Clarifying your goals for the interaction: what productive outcome do you seek?

  • Jotting down a list of your values and presence that will sustain you.

  • Making sure that if there are multiple interactions of this kind, they’re not stacked one after the next, especially without breaks in between. You need to catch your breath and reset after, not just prepare before.

Don’t forget that as a coach-leader, taking care of yourself is just as important as taking care of your people.



Podcast rec: Loved this conversation between Esther Perel (host of "Where Should we Begin?") and "Pivot" hosts Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway. While so much of Perel's work focuses on helping pairs who are struggling, this episode pulls the curtain back on a strong, resilient, and healthy partnership. What makes Kara and Scott's working relationship so successful? What can you learn from it? Listen to find out.


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