the shape of leadership

The Listening Compass

Four ways to listen as you lead

Stephen Blandino on December 13, 2018


Listening is one of the most important things a leader will ever do. The intentionality to listen not only helps the leader develop better strategies and make wiser decisions, but listening is what connects the leader to the hearts of others.

John Maxwell observed, “Before a leader can touch a person’s heart, he has to know what’s in it. He learns that by listening.”

One of the best ways to practice listening in one-on-one or small group conversations is through what I call the listening compass. A compass has four points — north, south, east and west. The listening compass also has four points, and each one plays a unique role in helping us become better listeners.

Point 1 is words — hearing what someone is saying. Words are obviously a critical component to listening, which is why they’re the first point of the compass. If you want to become a great listener, you have to hear the words others are speaking without letting your mind wander to your reply. The danger of hearing to reply is that we usually miss insights and make assumptions.

We miss key insights because we’ve checked out as we carefully craft our response. And we jump to conclusions, assuming we know what the person is trying to say and how he or she truly feels. Resisting this temptation requires a great deal of discipline. Learn to listen to understand rather than listening to simply reply.

The more you understand and empathize with the emotions behind someone’s words, the more quickly you’ll connect with that person’s heart.

Point 2 is emotions — understanding the feelings driving the communication. Emotions play an important role in what people say and how they say it. Paying attention to the emotions behind the words will tell you a great deal about the person you’re talking to. You can pick up on excitement, boredom, apathy, sorrow or joy. You may discover what people love or loathe, what interests and inspires them, and what drains the life out of them.

The more you understand and empathize with the emotions behind someone’s words, the more quickly you’ll connect with that person’s heart.

Point 3 is body language — recognizing what someone isn’t saying out loud. This is all about nonverbal communication, or body language. These silent cues sometimes speaks louder than words. Body language can include eye contact, posture, facial expressions, a lack of energy and more. While body language often mirrors emotions, it can also communicate, “I’m not interested,” or “You’ve really made me mad,” or “I’m giving you the cold shoulder.”

Paying attention to body language will give you another way to engage the conversation by acknowledging what you sense the person is feeling.

Point 4 is reflection — echoing back what a person has said. To help people feel heard, repeat what you hear them saying. Reflection helps the person know you really are paying attention, especially if what you echo back also acknowledges emotions and body language. The only way to do this effectively is by paying attention to the other three points of the compass.

Points 1, 2 and 3 are what inform Point 4. Reflection will help you take the conversation deeper, and it will drive the interaction to a place that delivers a better outcome.

James 1:19 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” By putting each point of the listening compass into practice, you can learn to listen at a deeper level, and that listening will positively impact your relationships and your ministry.

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