How to Listen to Drive Commitment

How can we use generous listening and techniques for generous listening in a team setting, and what results should we expect?




My wife and I have been together so long that both of us believes we know what the other is thinking. But we don’t. When forget we get into trouble.

We cannot know what is written on somebody’s heart. We cannot make assumptions based on our observations of their behaviour filtered through our perception of the world. “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are” (Goethe).

It’s important to clarify instead of assume. To ask questions instead of judging. To try to get, if possible, others to tell us what their intentions, motivations, or reasoning is. To listen.

Ask questions. Ask open-ended questions. Squash as many of your own assumptions as you can.

Discuss Facts

We often try to avoid conflict. What we end up doing is preserving artificial harmony, which erodes trust and committment. Passionate debate and creative conflict is often what’s needed. Laying it all on the table. Being vulnerable. This doesn’t mean we have to make (or tolerate) personal attacks.

Stick to the facts, and if you need to then describe the consequences of those facts as you see them. For example, you may draw the conclusion that an employee is lazy when they come to work a half an hour late every morning.

If you start the conversation “Hey, you’re lazy.” you’re not going to get very far. You might need start the conversation something like “When you come into work half an hour late every morning [the fact] it makes you look lazy [the result as you see them].”

Stick to the facts. Don’t attack people.

Speak Up

You must speak your own truth. This goes together with the previous “discuss facts” directive. The passionate debate and creative conflict can’t happen if you don’t give to the conversation. If you’re the leader (manager, executive) then a big part of your job is to make sure everybody is heard before deciding. Even if you think you already know what decision you’re going to make.

With people very often you have to go slow to speed up.

Without being heard, there is no committment. Even if your employees (volunteers, children) don’t agree with the final decision (and they don’t have to, because commitment isn’t about consensus), you’ll have a better chance of getting their agreement if you’ve listened to and heard them. Speak your truth, hear their truth.

Speak up, and let others speak

Summary for Leaders

  • Clarify assumptions, ask questions
  • Debate facts, not personalities
  • Speak up, leave room for others to speak

Interesting in driving execution in your business? Talk to the Business Execution Experts:


Techniques for Generous Listening

“Communication is what the listener does” – Mark Horstman

Last week I encouraged you to be more than an active listener. I encouraged you to be a generous, respectful, and calm listener instead. While the “active” listening techniques of eye contact and body language are useful, they don’t go deep enough.

What does generous listening look like in practice? Here are three actionable, specific techniques for being a generous listener:

Listen With Your Mind

Personally I have a hard time even hearing what’s being said, or staying focused. My mind will drift off, especially if somebody’s rabbiting on about a topic that doesn’t interest me. Or I’ve already decided in irrelevant to where I want the conversation to go. Or I’m thinking furiously about what my response is going to be to an earlier statement, and I miss their real point.

Repeat the words they are saying to yourself in your head.

This will get you back on track. It will bring your mind back to what they’re saying. Don’t worry about having an immediate response ready the moment they take a breath. Having an immediate response ready the moment they stop talking is just another form of interrupting. Take a breath before you reply.

Stop Interrupting

If you’re interrupting you’re not listening. If you’re not listening, they’ll know it and are less likely to be listening to you. Then how are you going to influence them? Just don’t.

This includes waiting for them to pause so you can elbow your way into the conversation with your witty retort. Bite your tongue. Take notes. Clench your teeth and grunt “Uh-Huh” or “Mmm-hmm” until your throat hurts if you have to.

Then count to five in your head after you think they’re done.

The “Uh-Huh” sound is a great way to move the conversation along, signal that you’re listening, and still not agreeing or making a commitment you don’t want to make.

Accept Feedback

I admit that most feedback is poorly delivered, feels like a personal attack, and isn’t actionable. Doesn’t matter.

Say “thank-you” and take it. Questions for clarification only.

No retorts, no rationalizations, no justification. At the very least you’ll be helping them practice, and they might even give better feedback the next time. Or send them to my website, which has many articles on giving feedback.

How To Be A Generous Listener

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” — Winston Churchill

The biggest influencing skill is the skill of listening. You cannot hope to be heard until you’ve listened. Your influence will only reach to the extent you’ve payed and attention – and have been seen to pay attention.

As a listener, most of what we think of as listening happens inside our head. Let’s set the table and invite our speaker to sit with us:

Be a Generous Listener

Generous listening is the assumption of favourable intent. It means if somebody says something that can be taken in more than one way, they meant the good way. Or they are, in their own way, trying to help you. Or maybe you misunderstood?

I told a close friend of mine once that she “had to own her own shit.” I meant that she had to take responsibility for her own emotions and actions. She thought I had said “had to eat her own shit.” A subtle but important difference. Hilarity ensued.

Be a Respectful Listener

Is it safe to tell you bad news or give unfavourable feedback? Can you handle the truth? Listening means being vulnerable sometimes. Putting yourself out there. Exposing yourself to things that are hard to hear and maybe even hurtful.

Can you be compassionate and understand that the person telling you the bad news might be feeling vulnerable too? That if they’re telling you something unfavourable that it might actually be happening?

Be a Calm Listener

Your silence is not mean you agree with what is being said. Not interrupting, however, shows respect. Not interrupting is listening.

Sometimes people take a while to get to their point. They need to feel safe before they can get to what they really want. Personally this drives me nuts, but my therapist was really good at it.

President Lyndon Johnson was especially good at this. He could actively listen for hours, and spent much time on the telephone, waiting patiently to pounce when the speaker got to what they really wanted. [On listening to Johnson’s private phone calls]

Your Actions

Can you think of a conversation you’ve had in the past that might have gone differently with using any one of these techniques? What upcoming conversation can you apply these techniques too?