Leveraging Listening: New Discoveries in 3 Quick Steps

Excerpt from “Leadership Language: Using Authentic Communication to Drive Results” (Wiley, September 2018) by Chris Westfall.

Today, our ability to listen is under attack. We are bombarded by millions of messages every day. Tweets and texts and YouTube videos all compete for your attention. You’re familiar with the statistic: The average attention span of an adult, right now, is eight seconds. Compare that to the average attention span of a goldfish, which is nine seconds.

If you’re wondering how I know that’s a fact, it’s because I read it on the Internet.

Looking beyond our shrinking attention spans, you will see something that is quite expansive. Something a leader can and must use to build the connections that matter most: leveraging the three ways to listen.

It seems there are really three ways to listen. The first way is to listen to affirm. You are finding the relationships between what you already know and what you are hearing. You may experience “listening to affirm” as you read this , if you find yourself making comparisons to other authors you have read. 

And people are doing the same thing when you share your vision. They’re comparing you to the previous CEO or to what they read in a book by John Maxwell or perhaps Tim Ferriss. But references and comparisons can take you out of the conversation. If you’re making comparisons to someone else, how are you really able to be present and engage with the person right in front of you?

The second way to listen is to listen to defend. That’s how lawyers listen. By taking a defensive posture, your focus shifts to your response. Stephen Covey described it like this: Listening is merely a delay in your ability to respond. Essentially, you only listen well enough to counterpunch. Your attention is on yourself. Focusing on your own story and how to defend it dismisses what the other person has to say. It’s how you politely listen to someone tell you about his or her vacation, just so you can say, “Well, when we went to Monterrey last spring. . . .”

Dismissal, in this case, is disagreement. That disagreement closes off the realm of possibility. Why? Because, no matter what the possibilities are, your disagreement will cause you to miss them.

The third way to listen—and this is the way that is most valuable—is to listen to discover. And it’s the hardest thing for a leader to do.


Because listening to discover isn’t about you.

Listening to discover will point you in the direction of innovation. New results. New collaboration. Listening to discover will show you what’s missing. For yourself, and for your client. Are you in love with what you already know? Is your expertise so beautiful and

compelling that you can’t look away from your own experience or stop talking about it?

If you think you have to go it alone and your story is the only one that matters, I need you to discover something right now: You misunderstand what really matters.

If you’re unable to listen to discover, how are you going to change the game? How are you going to lead others to new outcomes, if you won’t engage in the place where those outcomes live? Discover that place. Let go of the misunderstanding that your voice and your affirmations are what matter most. Because they don’t—and there’s nothing for you to defend either. Your expertise isn’t diminished, it’s enhanced, because you can discover the insights you need, for the results you want.

We all listen to affirm (“I’ll wait until she says something that confirms what I already know, so I can feel good about myself, my education level, my experience, etc.”). Note that working hard to prove your intelligence isn’t going to expand it.

And we all listen to defend (“I can’t wait to tell Pat why this idea is idiotic/I’ve got to fix this clown/Will she ever shut up?”). You get the idea. That’s how lawyers listen: trying to find the angles and the rebuttal before it’s too late.

Consider some of your recent listening experiences:

  • What kind of listening showed up in your last meeting?
  • Who was listening to defend, and who was listening to affirm?
  • And who was just checking text messages?
  • When you talk to your boyfriend, spouse, or partner, how do you listen? And how do they?

We know, as leaders, that there are always things to discover. Innovation doesn’t come from what you already know. And listening to discover is the first step toward seeing things in a

new way.

Consider these simple guidelines for yourself and your organization:

  • Your team members, your boss, your shareholders all want to know whether you are really listening. Are you really watching, hearing, and acting on what’s going on around you?
  • If you are listening to affirm or to defend, whose agenda are you on?
  • When you say, “I hear your concerns,” do people believe you?

It’s vital that you take in and acknowledge diverse points of view. However, acknowledgement is not the same as agreement. Your strength as a leader comes from understanding. Seeing another point of view doesn’t mean you agree with it. It means you see it, fully. You

don’t need shortcuts or impatience if they don’t serve you. How often do you find yourself instantly creating artificial deadlines and cutting off the conversation as a result? And just one more question: How’s that working for you?

Falling back into old habits or listening to discover: Both options are only one thought away. The choice is yours. Listen to the idea that serves you most. Because you never know what you might discover.

Excerpt from “Leadership Language: Using Authentic Communication to Drive Results” (Wiley, September 2018) by Chris Westfall.

Chris Westfall is a business consultant; communication coach; keynote speaker; and the author, co-author, or publisher of eight books. Advising hundreds of thousands of leaders from high-growth entrepreneurial enterprises, Shark Tank startups, and Fortune 100 companies, he has helped create multimillion-dollar revenue streams for businesses on four continents. He is the U.S. National Elevator Pitch Champion. His latest book is “Leadership Language: Using Authentic Communication to Drive Results” (Wiley, 2018). To learn more, visit westfallonline.com.


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