Inspiring Leadership: Listen deeply

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This is the fourth of a six-part series exploring the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of inspiring leadership in the nonprofit sector. Read the other articles here:

Being an inspiring leader is a lot like being a great parent. As a parent, we have a responsibility to get the child to adulthood and, in order to do that well, we need to provide a healthy and caring environment, despite the stresses of parenting. We need to pay attention, even though we are trying to manage a lot of different things at once. The child’s safety depends upon it.

Leadership is very similar in that we have to balance having an end goal with the responsibility of providing a nurturing environment. However, as leaders, we often abdicate that responsibility and fail to pay attention as we become too busy and overwhelmed. To be an effective and inspiring leader, we need to be able to step back and listen deeply to what’s happening around us. Our employees’ sense of safety and level of productivity depends upon our ability to see and manage the dynamics and emotional welfare of our teams.

Many years ago I was a Street Worker in Dublin, Ireland. Let me clarify! I did late night outreach with homeless youth on the streets of Dublin. It was me and one other person walking the streets from 10pm to 2am trying to engage young people sleeping out to come in and get some support from our daytime café and support service. I had worked in homeless shelters for a number of years but this was my first gig going out at night. I was also fairly new to Dublin, having lived in London beforehand, so I did not know the city very well. We received safety training from our organisation and from the local police, or the ‘Garda’ as they were known. The fact that we had the police working with us, telling us who and what to avoid, did little to help my nervousness that first night we went out.

I had anticipated that it would be quiet but it was anything but to me. My heightened anxiety and awareness meant that I was picking up everything that was happening everywhere. I could hear cars driving, people chattering, doors slamming and the street sweeper moving slowly up and down the side of the road at the end of the shopping day. I jumped a little at every unexpected noise and darted my eyes everywhere. I felt like I needed to be on top of everything that was going on. But I wasn’t really. I was just constantly reacting with my eyes and my ears.

However, over the next few days this changed. I barely heard the sounds of the street anymore. I stopped jumping and darting and walked calmly with my outreach partner, getting focused on finding the kids who were sleeping out. I started being able to hear the unusual sounds, see the people who were in the shadows and trusting my body to tell me if there was danger ahead. It was almost like having a superpower. I knew what was going on around me without really looking. I was listening more deeply.

I also learned how to deeply listen to the young people. I would hunker down to speak to a young person smoking in front of a closed shopfront and deduce quickly how long they had been out, whether they had eaten and if they were high (Dublin had a terrible problem with heroin at the time). Getting past all that and still tuning out the street noise, I would listen quietly and fully to their story. It was often the middle of the night, no one was around and I could have been at risk with sometimes very desperate kids. But my ability to really listen to what young people were saying with their mouths, their bodies and their eyes helped me to develop strong relationships from the start. They knew that I really saw them. That I heard them. And most of all, they knew I cared. Because of how I listened.

Several years later, I became a leader, and this deep listening was one of the most valuable skills I brought to my leadership. I could see what was going on around me without saying anything or asking anyone directly. I could tell how people were interacting by their body language and their tone with each other. I was able to identify gaps in services and create new, innovative programming for my organizations. All because I could block out the noise and truly listen.

Deep listening is about listening for what is not being said. Not just hearing the words but really tapping into visual clues, emotional clues and almost immersing ourselves into the experience of the individual or group in front of us. Why is this important for leaders? Because we will never understand what is really going on with our staff or in our team if we only listen to their words. Getting a better understanding of the undercurrents, behaviours and emotional state of our staff enables us to communicate more effectively, see more clearly and make good decisions. Deep listening also enables us to move past the surface stuff and focus on what is really important to our organizations.

However, being a leader often brings with it a very busy mind and body that is unused to stopping and paying attention more fully. There are decisions to make, things to do and people who are demanding our attention. Sometimes we feel anxious as we worry whether people in the room or on our team think we’re smart, capable or a good leader. To listen deeply, we must put all of this noise to the side, in much the same way I did with the noisy streets of Dublin.

Here are some tips for deep listening with your individual staff, teams and clients/customers:

  • Clear your mind before starting. Take some deep breaths and actively make your mind blank.
  • Relax your body. Tension only increases the blood flow and the adrenalin running around your body. You cannot deeply listen in a heightened state.
  • Use your eyes. Watch the facial expressions of the person or people you want to hear. See the little movements of their eyes or mouth. Look at their body. Are they relaxed? Are they twitching? What’s going on for them?
  • Use your body. How does your own body feel in reaction to what is going on? Are you feeling yourself tense up? Or are you getting more relaxed? Do you see yourself moving forward or moving further away? Your body is likely reacting to the other person’s body and it gives you more clues as to what is happening for them.
  • Use your ears. What do you hear in their voice beyond the words? What is the tone they are using? How is it coming out? Confident? Wobbly? These are big clues to how the other person is feeling.
  • Don’t use your mouth. Keep it closed. Say nothing. Acknowledge with a smile or a nod of the head if need be but remember that you are listening deeply to hear more than what you are being told. You are listening deeply to learn about the other person or the group.
  • Practice. It took me awhile to get past the initial street noise and calm down my internal anxiety. You are likely to find the same thing when you start listening deeply. Ignore the surface stuff, the comments people are making and your internal voice demanding your attention.

There are many other ways to deeply listen to yourself, your environment and others. But start here. Try it out. I guarantee that you will see things, hear things and learn things that will amaze you and help you be a better, more inspiring leader.

Until next time!

Find out more about HOW to be an inspiring leader in the next two articles that are part of this Inspiring Leadership Series. Coming soon: Inspiring Leadership: Share Your Stories.

Lianne Picot is a self-described leadership and story obsessive who has worked in the nonprofit sectors in the UK, Ireland and Canada for over 25 years. Currently, as a Leadership Coach, Strategist, and Trainer, Lianne specializes in helping leaders to be more inspiring. Lianne is a Certified Executive Coach and a Part-time Instructor at The Chang School, Ryerson University, teaching in the Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management Certificate program. Lianne is also currently undertaking her Master’s in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) with a focus on workplace learning. She is the creator of ‘The Leadership Leap’, an online leadership program that helps new and aspiring leaders to be more inspiring, have more influence, and get better results. Connect with Lianne at or find out more about her services at and

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