Leading By Listening

My first lesson in listening

My earliest memory of the power of someone simply listening goes back to when I was 11. It was my first encounter with death and grief. My grandpa had just told me rather bluntly that my great-grandma had died, and he had awkwardly shuffled the sad little girl in his arms over to his sister, who we still referred to as the “West German” great-aunt, even though the Wall had fallen a decade ago.  I wasn’t very close to her and yet, it was her whose arms I found myself in in that very first encounter with grief. It was her, who simply held me and let me bawl the way only kids can. She didn’t say a word, she didn’t move. She sat there like my rock and listened to my tears. I don’t know if this lasted for two minutes or for an hour, but I know that I learned something that day. Many things were said to me in the hours and days that followed. Most of it made me angry or sad or both. It was my great-aunt’s silent listening, silent support, that was the only thing that I remember truly giving me comfort.

The recent come-back of listening

I haven’t thought about those moments all those years ago in a long time. Ironically, although probably not ironically at all, it is grief that recently made me think about listening once again.

My friend Jennifer and I have been friends for almost twenty years. I have lived a lot more of my life with Jennifer in it than without her. We have lived parallel lives for a long time, both of us Germans who fell for North-American guys, who now share a life and families with them on this side of the pond. Imagine our excitement when we recently realized that we were both expecting with almost the exact same due date. It wasn’t until around week 14 that we genuinely let ourselves get excited – we had made it past the most nervous time of a pregnancy after all, right? Right? Well, statistically speaking, sure. When the time came for our 16 week check-ups, Jennifer’s was on a Thursday and mine was on the following Tuesday. When Jenny went in, they could not find the baby’s heartbeat. Her little girl’s heart had stopped beating about a week earlier. In the very same moments of me listening to my baby’s heartbeat only a few days later, Jennifer was giving birth to her dead daughter.

When she finally messaged me that she was ready to talk, I gathered all of my courage and picked up the phone. She was strong and amazing, and all fears about what I should say or not say disappeared. She didn’t want me to talk, didn’t need me to talk. Jennifer needed me to simply listen. She just wanted to share with someone what they had gone through, and too many people had been afraid to ask.

Listening, I realized, can make all the difference.

The facets of listening

So what does this have to do with leadership? As I started to think about the power of listening, I realized that all good leadership comes with the ability to listen. When we talk about “leaders”, we talk about people who are intentional about affecting positive change. That can be a manager or CEO, but it can also be a mom, an activist, a neighbour. So here is my hypothesis if you will – to affect positive change, we must first be able to listen. But it’s not that easy, is it? It’s not a black-and-white scenario.

Because as it turns out, once you start thinking about listening, there is so much more to it. When I really started putting my mind to it, I thought about the many times I haven’t listened to my kids or my husband because I was too busy preparing a meal, or doing dishes, or answering a friend’s message. I thought about the times I did listen to them. The time my daughter told me about her first date, the countless times my son retold every detail of a chapter he had read or a movie he had watched, the first time my husband told me about his dad. I thought about the amazing manager who just listened after a tough meeting. I thought about the not so amazing manager, who failed to listen when I most needed it. I thought about the time when I was 19 and my girlfriend’s mom died. I thought about being a coward, who didn’t have it in her to pick up the phone, too scared to listen. I thought about the times listening brought me great joy, and the times it brought me pain. I thought about how much I appreciate some of the closest people in my life, simply because they have an incredible ability to listen. I thought about the many times I was looking for someone to listen, and got advice instead. I thought about the times I just didn’t have it in me to listen. The phone calls I haven’t answered because I had nothing left to give. It can’t just be an expectation, can it? Sometimes, it is just too hard for the other person to listen. Or too close to home, or just a little bit too much on that day, in that moment. And that’s ok, too.

So my challenge for you is simple:

I dare you to listen.

I encourage you to take an hour or a day or a week to think about the ways you listen. The people, who are good listeners in your life. The times you were that silent rock for someone else, and the times you perhaps could have done better. What role has listening played in your life and in your leadership journey?

Challenge yourself to listen, because you might just like what you hear.


Franziska Emslie is the YW’s Community and Public Relations Coordinator