To Be a Great Leader, You Have to Be a Great Listener

One of the most confusing and frustrating experiences of my career occurred when I was a nurse educator for a hospital’s critical care department. While I had always worked in an environment that encouraged robust debate and discussion, my new boss seemed to be dismissive of every idea and every piece of feedback I offered. I slowly noticed myself vacillating between being silent and then having angry outbursts in meetings, which of course made matters worse. Eventually, I found myself transferring to a similar role at a nearby facility. At first, I was hesitant to share my ideas but as I began to offer my input, to my surprise, my new workplace welcomed my ideas with enthusiasm. Clearly, not all of my feedback was addressed nor were all of my ideas implemented. The biggest difference this time is that they were – at the very least – discussed.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized that my frustrations did not stem from my ideas being dismissed. Rather, it came from a place where I was not being heard.

Listening may be the most important skill that a leader can have. If you want to become a better leader, focus on becoming a better listener first. Not only does it enhance your ability as a communicator, but it also conveys respect to the person that you are having a conversation with. Listening to what a physician, a nurse manager, or a fellow nurse has to say generates a robust conversation which, ultimately, enables us to forge a path forward together.

Through the years, I’ve learned that listening may come naturally to some. But for most, it is a conscious effort. Which is why I have compiled certain phrases that encourage me and others to listen. Here are some favorites that have served me well throughout the years.

  • I am not sure I understand…could you tell me more?
  • Do you think I understand this correctly?
  • What next step do you recommend?
  • Do we understand the problem correctly? Are we asking the right questions?
  • I see it differently…
  • What support do you need, what would support look like?
  • What would “wild success” look like? How would we proceed if our success were guaranteed? 
  • That was hard/easy/challenging/successful/a failure, what lessons have we learned that could guide us in the future?

If you haven’t used any of these questions, try one or two this week. I’ve found that listening is a great way to elicit the wisdom of the group and so will serve us well as we collectively grapple with issues such as burnout, staffing shortages, and the uncertainty of the pandemic. And, I’m curious, what are your favorite phrases that start deep conversation, dialogue, and listening?

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