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Mindful listening in leadership

5 min read


The concept of mindfulness has been in the media a lot lately. What does it really mean? It’s the quality of our attention in the moment.

All too often in our conversations, we are distracted by numerous, seemingly urgent matters on our smart phones or in our minds. We aren’t fully present with the person we are supposedly in dialogue with. We give only part of our attention, listening only for what we care to. While the other person is talking, we may be judging him, or thinking about what we will say as soon as he stops talking.

When we stand there, checking our phones or responding only to part of what’s being said, without realizing it, we are saying, “I’m not really interested in what you think”, and “Neither you nor this are important to me” and “My time is too important to listen to you.” We “miss” the person before us because we are mentally somewhere else, and they most certainly know it. Also, we are likely to fail to understand and learn from what the person just said.

Mindful listening is both a skill and a presence of mind that our most effective leaders share. Even a two-minute conversation can be productive and inspiring if the speakers are fully present and sincere, because that quality of attention conveys that we want to be helpful and to learn from others. A true leader understands that conscious listening is a high priority.

When we are not fully present to the person and the conversation we are engaged in, we can end up missing information. Sometimes we must ask them to repeat critical information. Worse yet, sometimes we aren’t even aware that we missed information, requests, or agreements.

A person I truly admire is Peter Hill, co-founder and CEO of Billy Casper Golf, the leader in the golf course management field. When we meet, we always sit in the seating area of his office, not across from one another at his desk. Peter’s daughter, Emily, has told me her dad is a lifelong learner. It’s true, he always seems totally present – he leans in, asks questions, appreciates feedback and is a patient listener.

Sue Mahanor, a senior vice president of ACE Group, is another person I greatly admire. Sue is deeply committed to having meaningful conversations with her team members. She realizes that it’s up to her to try to assure they are comfortable. Sue will always come around her desk and sit side by side, which is symbolic of caring and humble character. Her quality conversations are one reason she is so highly respected. She admits, it’s a challenge, being as busy as she is — yet she knows how important it is to her colleagues.

We all have demanding schedules. Many of us have hurried conversations. Yet, if we are not fully present and attentively listening when we speak with our colleagues we risk losing their trust and respect. This has been proven time and time again in feedback I receive in conducting 360-degree leadership assessments.

To be truly present, without an agenda, and with a genuine desire to hear, learn and know the person, takes self-discipline and practice. It takes discipline to take our eyes off our phones and our computers. It takes discipline to quiet our mind and to really hear the person, and to try to understand how they feel and why.

The conversations we have either improve or lessen our relationships. The success of our companies depends on the quality of our relationships, both internal and with our clients. We must grow and develop our relationships just as we do the same for our businesses. When we focus in the moment on the person before us, that person knows she is being heard. She feels appreciated and valued. This has a direct effect on her motivation, commitment, and personal investment in the company.

Likewise, when we are fully present to someone, we are able to give more fully of ourselves, our knowledge, our ideas and resources. Together, we are able to advance the mission and vision of our partnership and company. That is mindful leadership.

Kerry Douglass is a clinical professional counselor, having earned her master’s degree in clinical psychology from Wheaton College, and she is also a spiritual director, having earned her certification from Franciscan University. In addition, Douglass is a composer of spiritual music, a musician and a singer.

John Keyser is the founder and principal of Common Sense Leadership. He works with executives helping them develop organizational cultures that will produce outstanding financial results year after year, and a striving for continuous improvement, theirs and their team’s. You can reach Keyser at [email protected] and 202-236-2800.

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