Leaders Listen to Understand

By | February 20, 2019

[February 20, 2019]  “Get that wax outta your ears!”  My mother was fond of giving me advice that my other siblings seemed to never get.  She would say, “You hear me but you don’t HEAR me.”  She was telling me that to be a good son, I had to listen to understand; not just listen to her words.

And so it is with leaders.  Leaders, to be good at what they do, must listen to understand where other people are coming from with what they say and do.  It is more than words that have something to tell us; body language, voice inflection, what we wear and items we possess, and things we value … all communicate something about the person.1

“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.” – Roy T. Bennett, Ohio Congressman

To truly listen means to “see” all those things around that provide an understanding.  Most leaders want to know more about others.  Like many who read this leadership blog, I have found that the best leaders are truly interested in hearing what others have to say.  They listen so to improve upon their leadership skills so, when the time comes, people will follow.

Leaders are busy people.  Thus, we find those busy leaders often doing what is easy and expedient (we all do this) and also taking shortcuts.  Who hasn’t had a boss acting bored when you are explaining a problem to him?  My favorite was when a 3-star General fell asleep when I was telling him how we were avoiding illegal purchases of construction materials.  They simply were not listening to understand.

Good listening is a highly refined skill.  It is also very much valued.  When I grew up, it was obvious to my mother that I lacked listening proficiency and she was determined, as the first born, to mold me into a good young man.  I managed to improve but now my wife tells me to “stay focused.”  Like me, we all have room for improvement.


  1. https://www.habitsforwellbeing.com/9-effective-communication-skills/
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

25 thoughts on “Leaders Listen to Understand

  1. Dennis Mathes

    If you search the web, you will find millions of sites that discuss better ‘listening skills’ and how to develop those skills. I recommend someone please sort out the trash and make a list of those that are the most valuable. Such an assignment would be of great value. Thanks.

  2. Wilson Cox

    At work, effective listening means fewer errors and less wasted time. At home, it helps develop resourceful, self-reliant kids who can solve their own problems. Listening builds friendships and careers. It saves money and marriages.

  3. Jonathan B.

    Genuine listening has become a rare gift—the gift of time. It helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy.

  4. Eddie Ray Anderson, Jr.

    Another great article. Oh, keep them coming every day. I even enjoy the Guest Bloggers.

  5. Lynn Pitts

    There have been some great points made here by both Gen. Satterfield and those who comment regularly. I want to take a slightly different perspective. Try “listening” to yourself occasionally. Record yourself talking, then play it back and really listen. You will learn something about how you come across to others. I did it and it was an eye-opening experience.

  6. Gil Johnson

    I had great parents. They taught me many things about how to be good and happy too. One of these was to really listen to what others have to say. We used to practice it with games. My parents would invent some scenario and tell me about it. My job was to explain what was going on. They taught me well.

    1. José Luis Rodriguez

      Fortunately, most of us have the same experience yet turn out very differently. But it’s those without a parent or no parents (those who abdicate responsibility) that will truly struggle.

    2. Jake Tapper, Jr.

      I was also fortunate. But what I often see are ‘parents’ who are nasty to their kids (at least in public) by degrading them in front of others. I would point out who, but might be accused of being insensitive. Oh well that still doesn’t change the fact that a lot of cultures encourage parents to degrade children. And they wonder why the kids grow up to be criminals at such a high rate.

  7. Mr. T.J. Asper

    Training to listen is a valuable exercise in being a better leader and a better person. Learn it now or forever regret it.

  8. Eric Coda

    “Think before you do it.” Someone once said that and I have this saying on my refrig to remind me every day to put my brain in gear before speaking and before listening to others.
    Really good article this morning, Gen. Satterfield. I’m sitting back here with my daily cup of coffee and my dog at my feet. What a great thing it is to be able to relax, read, and think. Most leaders don’t take the time necessary to do these three things. They would be better if they did.

  9. Scotty Bush

    Really listening means not only giving to the other the time to finish his speech, but also the exercise of ‘borrowing’ his perspective. Listening means to actually see things from their perspective.

  10. Greg Heyman

    Speaking and listening in a balanced way are imperative in our world. The noise of useless words that many of us are throwing away in an attempt to get a grip on someone else’s attention, creates a thick fog that makes it really difficult to actually understand each other. Ironically, the more we talk, the less we’re able to communicate.

    1. Danny Burkholder

      I agree. Listen before jumping to conclusions. Good idea to live by. I made that mistake plenty of times. I judged people based on some very superficial things.

  11. Fred Weber

    “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

  12. Maureen S. Sullivan

    Listening is arguably one of the most difficult skills in communications, and we’re getting worse at it.

  13. Max Foster

    Good advice from an article by Andy Eklund called “Listening to Understand vs. Listening to Reply.”
    To allow yourself to listen better, you need to think and work in a different way. Instead of forcing yourself, become more passive.
    1. Get rid of outside distractions.
    2. Open your mind.
    3. Listen for the big picture, not the details.
    4. Note – but don’t judge – non-verbal communications.
    5. Do not jump to conclusions or interrupt.
    6. Paraphrase the big picture, then add in details.
    7. Challenge yourself first.

  14. Dale Paul Fox

    Effective communication doesn’t just happen overnight, it is a skill that has to be carefully cultivated and nurtured. That way we get better.

  15. Janna Faulkner

    “The greatest compliment that was ever paid to me was when someone asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” By Henry David Thoreau
    One of my favorite quotes that applies here today.

    1. Georgie M.

      … and here is my favorite:
      “The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” – Ralph Nichols.
      This is probably also in the Bible. Of course, there is great wisdom in these words.

    2. Len Jakosky

      Here are some similar themed quotes:
      1. “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.” –Doug Larson
      2. “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” –Bryant H. McGill
      3. “If you make listening and observation your occupation, you will gain much more than you can by talk.” –Robert Baden-Powell
      4. “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” –Karl A. Menniger
      5. “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” –Bernard Baruch

  16. Army Captain

    Good article this morning and loved the story about your mother trying to keep you in line.

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