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Blog Post

Becoming Your Organization’s Chief Listening Officer

By Andrew Barenz, Client Engagement Leader

“It’s all going to be ok.”

“You’re overreacting. Things will return to normal soon enough.”

“Have you tried yoga or meditation? Those help with stress and anxiety.”

Whether you’re trying to provide a silver lining, make the situation seem less dire or offer a solution, these types of responses are often well-intentioned. It’s only natural that you want to help others. However, they are likely not responses you would like to receive in times of distress. Regardless of your intent, these responses often don’t have the intended impact on the other person.

Why is the default problem solving or providing a silver lining? As leaders, problem solving is a natural response, something you’re paid to do. As humans, sharing in the distress of another person is difficult, and it is often easier to look to a better outcome in the future.

What do you do amidst a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, when no one knows what the future will hold, and it’s a problem that can’t be easily solved? One of the most valuable things you can do in a situation like this is to listen.

Listening is a behavior you can use when you have no solution to this pandemic and little influence over how this situation unfolds. Listening allows you to express empathy, be present, form a human connection, and make the other feel understood.

However simple it sounds, listening is biologically difficult. On average, humans speak at a rate of around 150 words per minute, but brains  understand words spoken at a rate of around 450 words per minute.

biology of listening

This makes listening biologically difficult. Our brains have the ability to think about much more than just what the other person is saying. Often, you use that extra mental bandwidth to formulate a response, think about your to-do list, or anything else you’d rather be doing. Layer on the added complexities discussed above of your desire as a leader to solve problems and avoid emotionally difficult conversations and you’ll start to see why listening is a difficult skill to master.

But, what does listening look like? In other words, how do you ‘behave’ listening? It turns out listening is an active behavior that makes the other feel heard, understood, and valued.

Below are five behaviors you can use with your team during this difficult time:

  1. Attending Behavior is the demonstration of a nonverbal that shows the other you are giving them your undivided attention. Examples include eye contact, leaning forward, and putting away cell phones and other distractions.
  2. Acknowledgements are short phrases that show the other you are following along like nodding your head, eye contact, and letting the talker know you are turned in with verbal confirmations.
  3. Door Openers are statements or questions that encourage the other to share more. A few examples include: “Tell me more about that…” or “How is the situation impacting you?” Door openers serve less to satisfy your own curiosity and more to help the other process what they need to share.
  4. Silence is both speaking less and calming the mind to focus on what the other is sharing. I like to think of my mind as a chalk board. Each time something unrelated to the conversation pops onto it, I simply wipe it away and focus on the conversation at hand.
  5. Empathetic Response is the way you communicate back to the other and demonstrate that you understand both the facts and the feelings of their situation. An example would be: “It sounds like you’re uncertain and nervous (feelings) about our future due to the changes in our work policy and drop in sales (facts). Thanks for sharing.” You’re not problem solving or providing a silver lining. Rather, you’re simply validating the experience of the other and making them feel heard.


steps of effective listening

Not only is this type of listening beneficial for the other person, but by listening first, you’re able to better discern what the person needs from the conversation and how to most appropriately respond. For example:

  • Did the person just need someone to listen?
    • If so, you can end the conversation once the person is done sharing, using: “Thank you for sharing.”
  • Does the person need to vent or process out loud?
    • You can continue listening, saying: “Tell me more about that…”
  • Is this a growth opportunity for the person?
    • You can ask open-ended questions and coach them to expand their thinking, using: “What options do you have? Which is the best option to achieve your goal?”
  • Is the person looking for an answer to the uncertainty we are experiencing?
    • Use the five skills above and be honest with your answer, for example: “It sounds like you’re uncertain and nervous about our future due to the changes in our work policy and drop in sales. Thanks for sharing. I can’t guarantee what the future will hold, but we are thinking creatively and working hard to find new sources of revenue.”

Finally, here are four practical tips on becoming your organization’s Chief Listening Officer:

  1. When you don’t know the future and there is no immediate solution, avoid giving a silver lining or solutions that don’t address the underlying problem (potentially fear and uncertainty).
  2. Schedule a daily or weekly meeting with your team to touch base on the work you need to do and stay connected as a team.
  3. Schedule individual check-in meetings with those on your team. Being proactive to schedule these meetings makes your team feel cared for and the meetings provide an opportunity to practice listening.
  4. Use a video conferencing platform for your calls instead of an audio-only call. Face-to-face conversations, even if virtual, increase a sense of connection when we’re not geographically together. Plus, it gives you the opportunity to tune into the nonverbals of the other person and share your own attending behaviors and acknowledgments.

In times of uncertainty, one of the best things you can do for your team members and colleagues is to simply be present and listen.

If you have any questions, please reach out. I am available at

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