How to be a Leader who Hears What’s Not Said

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This post was written by Mark Miller, Vice President High Performance Leadership, Chick-fil-A Inc.


Surprising insight:

Are you a musician? I am not. Yes, I played the trombone in fourth grade, but that seems to have been a rite of passage for all suburban kids of my generation. I was never really a musician. But recently, I found a musical insight that will serve me the rest of my life ­— maybe it will help you too.

Striving for mastery:

I have been working for decades on being a better listener. Some say I’ve made progress; others might disagree. However, I have long known that really good leaders are often the best listeners in the room. I continue to strive to master this skill.

So, what does this have to do with being a musician? Here’s what I’ve been thinking about for the last several months. If you look at a piece of sheet music, you’ll see lines (staff) and dots (notes), some with tails, and squiggles. I recently realized there’s something else on the page: the space between the notes! Music isn’t just notes and squiggles — it’s also spaces.

Listening to Spaces:

Here’s the connection to listening. If we are not careful, we’ll confuse listening with the ability to recite back the notes we heard. I guess that is one form of listening. But the higher form of listening includes both the notes and the spaces.

The best leaders listen for what is being said and what is NOT being said. We must listen for the implications, intent, and inflection. We must not reduce listening to a mechanical process of recording the notes.

The spaces matter as much as the notes.

If you want to listen at a higher level, try listening to the space between the notes too. It’s the difference between listening on a cheap radio and hearing live music played by a symphony. And it’s worth the effort.

What general listening tips might you add? 

How might leaders hear what isn’t being said?

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Thanks to Mark for his guest post. Three ways to listen to spaces come to my mind.

  1. Allow silence. Don’t fill the spaces with your own words. Try counting to three before you speak. Relax your breathing.
  2. Listen for assumptions. What is the speaker assuming about others, you, or him/herself?
  3. Listen to nonverbal signals. Are they leaning in or away, for example?

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