Speaking or Listening—When are you most powerful?

Blog Post Transformational Leadership

Don Durand, breakthrough consultant

Well, what would you say?

If we define power as the ability to cause or influence outcomes, my initial answer is that we are most powerful when we speak.

Although his inaugural address was before my time, JFK’s call-to-action, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” still inspires me. When I first heard it, I felt called to serve for my own country. For 13 years I served with the Canadian and British Armies. One could say that JFK influenced my actions by his speaking.

So, the power is in the speaking (and acting, as in actions speak), no?

After some thought, I’m not so sure. And you may be surprised too.

Former US secretary of state, Dean Rusk once asserted “…the best ways to persuade others is through your ears, by listening to them”.

But how does listening move or influence people? We are wired to speak first and to listen second. Surely one of the best ways to persuade others is through our mouths, by speaking.

But what if Rusk is right? What if the power is in listening?

This question got me thinking: how can we generate an outcome or get people to act by such a passive act as listening? Maybe you’d agree, there’s little or no action in listening.
When I reflect on all the leaders I’ve worked with, I have to admit, hands down, the most effective ones were all great listeners.

I’m going to follow Einstein’s approach here and get at this apparent paradox using a thought experiment.

I want to examine my theory that power is in the listening, and not in the speaking.

Thought Experiment #1

When someone is not listening, what happens to you or your speaking?

When someone is listening but has resistance to what you are saying, what happens to you or your speaking?

When someone is listening through their judgment or their own agenda, what happens to you and your speaking?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be responding to the above in one or all of the following ways:
You will:

  • get angry
  • get louder
  • provide more data or evidence
  • edit yourself
  • stop talking altogether
  • get resigned and cynical

Wow: the listener actually shapes the speaker. Consider whether or not your speaking is shaped by how another is listening to you.

Thought Experiment #2

In your own experience when someone truly listened to you, what happened to your speaking?

When someone was truly open-minded to your ideas, thoughts and underlying concerns, what happened to your speaking?

When someone was listening for your big ideas, your passion and commitment, what happened to your speaking? How did it make you feel?

Here are some of my experiences of being truly listened to. I have felt:

  • acknowledged (seen)
  • lighter or relieved
  • valued and inspired to provide my best
  • respected
  • understood
  • clarity was generated

Through these thought experiments, we can see how real listening (or authentic listening – which is not to be confused with active listening) actually creates an environment where real results are possible.

The quality of our listening to and for another can move them from resisting to listening? It can also move them from listening to considering, and our listening can move them from considering to doing. How well we listen impacts the quality of our relationships and this directly affects our overall effectiveness.

I hear some readers respond: but, Don, I’m a great listener. I’ve been practicing active listening for years!

To all the active listeners out there, I’d say we’ve gotten really good at acting like we are listening.

In another blog, I will say more about how to listen authentically and how to bring out the best in people’s speaking. For now, simply consider how you listen and its impact on the speaker.

Over the next week slow down and pay attention to how the people in your life are speaking to you – your kids, spouse, employees, customers, bosses, anyone. Do you sense they’re speaking openly in front of you or do you feel they are holding back and sharing only the bits they think you want to hear? If you slow down and pay attention, you’ll be able to tell. Maybe, without even knowing it, you have trained them how to speak around you. Pay attention to your own listening in the week ahead – create your own thought experiment and test it out. What you will likely discover is that the power is actually in your listening.

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