Practicing the Discipline of Listening

The Leader’s Circle: Practicing the Discipline of Listening

By Joe Clabaugh

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my years of working in customer service is to listen — really listen — to what others are saying. Along with listening comes honesty, empathy and kindness — qualities that seem to be in short supply these days.

Peter Drucker called listening the first competency of leadership. “Listening is not a skill,” he said, “it is a discipline. Anybody can do it. All you have to do is keep your mouth shut.” Or put another way in Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Covey’s fifth habit, “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” is one that I work on daily. Mastering it requires empathic listening, which Covey argues is the highest level of listening. When you listen with empathy, he says, you put aside your own feelings and try to fully understand another person, emotionally as well as intellectually.

Practicing the discipline of listening has helped me become a better team leader and a more effective NetVU board member. I’ve learned not to react immediately. It’s better to listen, think, then act. If you allow yourself time to respond, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the issue at hand and make smarter decisions. Part of it is patience. Part of it is life experience — in my case surviving cancer, which has caused me to more clearly focus on what’s important in life.

What I value most in communication these days is honesty and sincerity. I have tremendous respect for leaders who speak with candor and transparency, exhibit humility and show kindness. Those are qualities I’ve tried to demonstrate as the first insurance company representative to sit on the NetVU executive board.

Listening for Understanding not respondingI’ve been active in NetVU for most of my career at The Cincinnati Insurance Company. In my role as a service manager, I’ve interacted with many agencies and Vertafore users. I hear what works, as well as what needs to be improved.

In managing Cincinnati’s IT Agency Service Desk and making many agency visits over my 30-year tenure at Cincinnati, I’ve learned about the workflows and technology requirements of agents. I‘ve found that a carrier perspective can provide insight into product development and agency training needs.

My fellow NetVU board members will tell you I ask a lot of questions. My intent is to more fully understand users’ concerns, not to judge or criticize. I engage and listen with the goal of better serving NetVU members. In fact, that is our common goal.

Placing the needs of others above our own is one of the hallmarks of enlightened leadership. Robert K. Greenleaf, who originated the concept of servant leadership, said it best: “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong…The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” Doesn’t that sound a lot like NetVU?

It all goes back to listening, and how we respond to those we encounter at work or in our personal life. Do we put their needs first? Do we seek to understand? Or do we just plow ahead with our own agendas?

The next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation, practice empathic listening and wait before you speak. Remember, you have the freedom to respond rather than react.

Listen, learn, respond. Try it. I think you’ll like the results.