The Power of Listening

Growing up surrounded by music making, I have explored from an early age, how listening can enable me to create something entirely new as part of a team. My brother, as an orchestral conductor, lives by the philosophy that a conductor as a ‘listening leader,’ has the privilege and power to be able to drive creativity in its most pure and spontaneous form. Within a musical performance, he must be in the past, the present and the future all at the same time as he listens, responds and preempts to guide a group in collaboration.

This model of the orchestral conductor as a ‘listening leader’ gives us much food for thought in every day life. So many of us forget to use this fundamental sense we posses in an active way, often thinking we will be more influential transmitting information than absorbing it.

Through working with businesses and teams of all different sizes, backgrounds, industries and creative abilities I have seen first hand that listening is one of the most important and powerful tools we possess.

- Listening is: the key to learning -

The key to fast and successful learning is to actively engage with other people’s minds and experiences. Learning is not just absorbing and understanding new information. Another essential part of true learning is different applications for that new information we have absorbed. The reason good teachers are so sought after? We don’t learn from simply absorbing pure information. We must listen, question debate and discuss the meaning of new information we discover within the context of our lives and the world we live in.

In an increasingly digital world, we are becoming prone to trusting information and computers over humans and it is easier to shortcut the most important part of the learning process.

- Listening is: the key to effective collaboration -

Getting the best out of any collaboration, working towards a united vision and aligning the actions of different parities is no simple task.

I have been part of teams with wildly contrasting dynamics that have all been challenging in different ways. The greatest challenge to the success of a team of any size is when any party forgets to listen, or perhaps simply does not place enough value on listening.

A ‘listening team’ enables true collaboration. This is when leadership emerges from different parties at different moments according to the context, and their individual strengths in skill, ability, passion and curiosity.

This is difficult to achieve as it involves consistent self control and active engagement from every party involved and, after all, we are only human. Establishing an understanding of a listening culture at the start of any collaboration is essential, as this empowers more open communication to reset the balance when required.

- Listening is: the key to successful negotiation -

The only difference between negotiation and collaboration is that the long term goal of the different parties may conflict with each other. A successful negotiation, however, leaves all parties seeing value in an agreement. A ‘win or lose’ approach is blind to the value of relationships. Relationships are fundamental, from suppliers to buyers to employees; relationships make a business a business. Success in negotiations is of vital importance.

The only way to ensure that a negotiation is successful regardless of the competitive nature of other parties, is to see information as power. Listening to and understanding their motivations, aspirations and alternatives if no agreement is reached, puts the power in your hands to engineer an agreement that doesn’t just satisfy your needs but also maintains a positive relationship with other parties.

- Listening is: the key to inspiring leadership -

There are many different ways of looking at the definition of ‘leadership.’ This brings me back to the orchestral conductor as a model for a ‘listening leader’ who listens, responds and preempts, maintaining consciousness of the past, present and future at all times to empower creativity within the group.

Leadership, to me, is very clear. It is actively taking responsibility for the people around you being the best they can be within the context of any given task. It has nothing to do with hierarchy or management — often people who show the most inspiring leadership are, in fact inspiring and leading colleagues in more senior positions than themselves.

Leadership should be about taking the responsibility to inspire the best environment for success by constantly listening to, responding to and preempting the thoughts and actions of the people around you.


Imogen Berman