The Art of Strategic Listening: Challenges From Real Leader in Their Own Words

Do not speak unless you can improve upon the silence. ―Ram Dass

My 14-year old niece recently called to ask what to pack for her upcoming visit. In the middle of my suggestions, she interrupted. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure!” I said.

“I am debating what I should wear for Halloween this year Should I dress as Zimba or Scar from Lion King?”

 “Does this have anything to do with what you should pack?” I asked. 


Eighty percent of every moment in my day is spent listening, so I was a bit struck by her question. SQUIRREL! Our discussion was top-of-mind for a while. And do you know what I noticed during the next few days? Grownups do the same thing!

It comes at such a high price, too. Information is power, and like a tree falling in the forest, information just happens. All we need to do is hear it. If we choose not to, we carelessly discard relationships, influence, money, and power.

True, engaged listening is the most important tool to effectively navigate the challenges leaders face every day.

Logically, this makes sense and is even a fundamental truth. The power, however, lies in how you anchor yourself to be more mindful about your interactions in order to remain fully engaged in conversations.

What’s more, check out this finding by Judith E Glaser in Harvard Business Review’s, The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations,  

“Positive comments and conversations produce a chemical reaction ... They spur the production of oxytocin,a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex.”

Active and reflective listening promotes a “productivity drug” in our brains that also just makes us feel great.

What techniques can you use as anchors to create positive conversations? I have included below some real-world challenges—in the words of my clients–with which you might be able to identify to drive home the strategic advantage enjoyed by good listeners. I have also included the ultimate listening-related solutions–or anchors—we worked toward and will continue develop. As with all beneficial skills, practice is key.

Client Challenge: Influencing Behaviors Toward a Desired End

“How do you get people to do things they don’t want to do? How do I strategize, manage, and navigate all these different personalities and factors? How do you get [colleagues, investors, suppliers and those we don’t employ] onboard and to buy in?”

  • Anchor – Think White Space: Giving others white space to sort through their thoughts helps you to get to know their thought processes and empowers you to provide more effective coaching in the future.

  • Client reaction: “I really felt like I needed to listen ... That he needed to kind of discover by ’saying’. He needed to say his piece. So it was kind of eye opening to watch him getting there. So I wanted to pay attention more and listen to his thought process, and give him space to feel heard ... it was a good opportunity to understand where they’re each coming from”  

  • Takeaway: People’s stories provide insight into their core desires and motivators–the keys to influencing their behavior.

Client Challenge: The Hyperactive Type-A Mind That Takes Over the Room

“I know I can be impatient. I know I move at a warp-speed. That is my temperament. That is just the way I am wired.”

  • Anchor – Put on Your Dumbo Ears: How much more powerful would you be if you were the world’s greatest listener, being ultra-informed and having your team grow from experience? Just pretend you are. Picture you have big Dumbo ears. “I think. Therefore, I am, right?”

  • Client reaction: “I just listened to those guys talk. Yeah, I had my big ears out, and they were talking amongst themselves and I was just listening and I didn’t throw my ideas in. I just waited and finally they realized they’ve been talking the whole time. They turned to me and said, ’Well what do you think?’ I said one or two things and that was perceived as something very calm and peaceful.”

  • Takeaway: Sometimes, the less we speak, the more we accomplish by   empowering and developing our teams to come up with their own solutions.

Client Challenge: Feeling Pressure to Please A New CEO

“Right now, quite frankly, I’m kind of being evaluated and tested, so I think demonstrating that I can actually do this will be a huge win, and it will continue to allow me to grow and be successful.”

  • Anchor – Ask What’s Really At Stake? So many speak with the rhythm of dialog, whether or not there is really something important to say. How much more effective would you be and appear if you only spoke when you said something that created value? Think to yourself, “I am not going to talk unless I understand the big picture or am gathering information to get there.”

  • Client reaction: “When I start to sense anxiety building in a conversation, I now ask myself what’s at stake and the likely answer is feeling like I have to change a deliverable or say something to please someone and instead dig for what’s really going on. And letting go of the deliverable mindset and focusing on understanding and kind of acknowledging, ’Yeah, there may be some tweaks to the deliverable, but it’s more important to know what’s really going on, and it may not be as big of an impact as I think.’… Stopping to listen instead of focusing on pleasing.”

  • Takeaway: Focus on the dialog versus the deliverable and the need to “produce”, which in turn often creates better quality outcomes and deliverables.

How ironic that so many turn to blogs—speaking of irony—academic degrees, and books to develop techniques and capabilities to help them get ahead when the truth is if they don’t maximize the quality of the input through listening, all the techniques in the world will prove largely futile. How about you spend maybe two or three months to focus on exploiting your greatest on-board asset―listening? Use it as the powerful strategic tool it really is, and see how you flourish.


Want to discover how emotionally intelligent you are? Take your EQ-i assessment here!

Find Laura at Berdeo Group, find her on LinkedIn, and follow her on Twitter.



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