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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Leading with Character: The Art of Listening

As a sailor and Coast Guard cutterman, I’ve learned to respect Mother Nature, and to listen when she speaks.

Autumn on Cape Cod is my favorite season. Mother Nature announces herself like a haughty guest who arrives fashionably late to a party – dressed well, strutting boldly, with the intent to create a sensation. Making a grand entrance here on the Cape, she fills up my senses by painting the landscape with vibrant color, ripening apples in the orchard, and bringing an invigorating chill to the air.

The sights, scents, and tastes of Fall are delightful, but most of all, I love the sounds of Fall. The past few mornings have started out sublimely quiet and still as the sun ascends and stretches its golden rays above the emerald crowns of the trees across the bay. This is the peaceful, silent time of day, and I treasure it for centering and preparing me for what’s to come. Then, the songbirds start to scratch and quietly chirp, the kingfisher calls raucously, and the ducks quack gregariously as they intently forage for breakfast. As the sun warms the Earth, the air rises creating a vacuum and more air flows in briskly from the sea. I love the sound of the wind blowing through the trees; it’s a powerful, purposeful sound – the sound of Mother Nature telling us she’s in charge. As a sailor and Coast Guard cutterman, I’ve learned to respect Mother Nature, and to listen when she speaks.

Becoming a Better Listener

There’s an art to listening. We’ve all heard the wise axiom, “You’ve got one mouth and two ears; use them in that proportion.” But, how often do we actually stop to think about what it really means to listen well? We can all learn to be better listeners, and I believe it’s urgent that we do so to create more positive, productive workplaces. We have a lot to overcome. Following the COVID pandemic, hybrid work has become the norm for those who are not in the trades or the service industry, replacing personal interactions with remote interface. Social media has enabled users to post their views unilaterally without regard to consequences. On top of that, an increasingly divided society has pitted people and organizations against each other. So how do leaders meet these challenges? I believe they can make headway by helping employees learn to become better listeners.

Listening Well

As I seek to become a better listener, I focus on these three aspects of listening:

  • Listening to Appreciate: To combat stress and/or exhaustion, it can be therapeutic to make time to sit quietly and listen. Listening to the sounds of nature makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself. I’m blessed to live in a location that enables me to do so naturally. But I also have music that features birdsongs, waves crashing, wind blowing, and more. And there are sound apps available for those who desire that option. You know you’re listening to appreciate when you savor the experience – the wide variety of birds you’d never before noticed, the different instruments in an orchestra that combine to produce a masterpiece, or perhaps you listen to the wind and imagine you’re on a sailboat beating into the wind on an azure sea.
  • Listening to Learn: Another way to practice listening is to put together a library of podcasts and programs that can be consumed while exercising, commuting, and working around the house. Among my favorites are “From the Green Notebook,” a leadership podcast by host Joe Byerly, and “Hidden Brain,” a podcast which uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships by host Shankar Vedantam. I’ve learned much about the mental elements of leadership from these two informative programs. By listening with the intent to learn, we can become better informed, which in turn makes us even better listeners and leaders.
  • Listening to Understand: Perhaps the most important aspect of listening is listening to understand. This is where the art comes in! It’s fairly easy to listen to appreciate, be it nature or a good concert, or to listen to learn through an interesting podcast or program. But listening well is hardest when we’re with other people. Some people interrupt, while others don’t speak up. Some stridently declare their views, while others seek to learn. To forge more positive climates in the workplace and to build bridges in our communities we should listen intently to others, seeking to respectfully understand them, rather than undermine them. A tool to help people practice the art of listening to understand is to start personal interactions, be they one-on-one or in a group, with an informal “getting to know each other” session. Discover something in common. That breaks the ice, which makes everyone feel more comfortable, and hopefully more likely to listen to understand.

Look in the mirror: What’s one thing you can you do in the coming week to become a better listener?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.


If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: https://sandrastosz.com/book/breaking-ice-and-breaking-glass/

Sandra L. Stosz
Sandra L. Stosz
Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.

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