Listen Different

Listen Different 150 150 Laura Sicola

Typically, I write about speech. But today I want to take a new look at the role of the listener in leadership communication. As Apple might say, you have to “Listen Different.”

Of course, as the speaker you need to present your information in a way that will make sense to that particular listener, which is an important leadership skill. But that’s only half the story.

Not everyone is going to be good at adapting their speech to fit your expectations for what good communication sounds like. That’s why it’s important to learn to listen differently, so as not to be at risk for missing some of the most valuable pieces of information.

As an example, I work with a lot of women’s groups, and one of the most common frustrations I hear is when a woman makes a comment in a meeting, which gets glossed over, and then five minutes later one of the men at the table says almost the exact same thing, but he is praised for the contribution. The following cartoon illustrates the sentiment.

Gender-bias issues aside, why this is such a common experience, and how can it be changed? The underlying principle stands for everyone – women and men alike. The truth is that the responsibility for change is shared by everyone present Here’s one reason why:

Sometimes the way a comment is framed makes it “fly under the radar” if listeners aren’t tuned into that frequency, so to speak. For example, they say something like “What about X? Should we look at that? Would that work?” If you heard this at a meeting, what would your response be?

While the person is technically making a suggestion, you might not register the value of the suggestion because it is framed as a series of questions that – on the surface – seem to be seeking validation or approval.

Believe it or not, many listeners don’t understand the nature of what they’re really hearing, and need to recognize the speaker’s intent

You might wish they had just said, “We haven’t tried X yet; let’s take a look at that option,” but they didn’t. So you need to learn to hear the message, no matter how it is framed. Make sure you’re fully present when someone is talking, because we first process tone and instinctive feeling before we process actual meaning. Otherwise, you risk missing out on critical information.

But even if you are just a participant in the conversation and you realize that you do hear the someone’s real message but believe the others in the group somehow missed it, or if “Ms./Mr. Triggs” offers an idea that is only praised when repeated by another person, it becomes your responsibility to diplomatically draw it to everyone’s attention: “Yes, Pat, I think you’re reinforcing what Chris said a moment ago about…” After all, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, right? Passive listening and lack of proactive participation are not qualities of effective leadership.

It may be frustrating to feel like you need to work harder at listening, that people should just “speak clearly,” in the end, communication is a two-way street, so if you want to be an effective communicator, learn to listen different.


Do you have trouble communicating effectively with someone, or feel like your contributions are often overlooked? If you have other questions or feedback about this issue, contact me at or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally!