Positive Leadership

Learning to Listen Deeply (Bonus Episode)

February 28, 2024 Jean-Philippe Courtois Season 8 Episode 6
Learning to Listen Deeply (Bonus Episode)
Positive Leadership
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Positive Leadership
Learning to Listen Deeply (Bonus Episode)
Feb 28, 2024 Season 8 Episode 6
Jean-Philippe Courtois

Positive leaders understand that talking less and listening more can foster genuine connections and drive meaningful change.

For this special podcast episode, JP explores the transformative power of deep listening, with practical tips and advice from his podcast guests to help you build your practice.

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

Show Notes Transcript

Positive leaders understand that talking less and listening more can foster genuine connections and drive meaningful change.

For this special podcast episode, JP explores the transformative power of deep listening, with practical tips and advice from his podcast guests to help you build your practice.

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I’m Jean-Philippe Courtois. This is Positive Leadership, the podcast that helps you grow as a person, as a leader, and as a global citizen. One definition of leadership is having the ability to broker essential conversations, conversations which have the power to transform our understanding of complex situations and to generate new ideas. The key component of these essential conversations is the practice of deep listening. Deep listening is a skill that can be learned. But the reality is some people are naturally just better listeners than others. But that doesn’t mean you cannot improve. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about deep listening from being in various leadership positions and from the positive leaders I’ve worked with. What it means to go and be with someone, a client, a team, a friend, a member of the community and to listen to them, not to bring your experience to the table, because you’re there to listen and earn their trust first and foremost. In this special episode, I’ll be sharing some of that experience and practical knowledge so that you can build your listening skills and become a better change maker at home or at work or with your family. Because to have a positive impact on the world we must go out and listen to the people who need it most. We must listen to learn. 


JEROO BILLIMORIA: We have two ears and one mouth. God gave you two ears because you have to listen more than you have to speak. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Jeroo Billimoria is a very inspiring serial social entrepreneur who two decades ago founded Childline India, a 24 hour a day, 365 days a year free emergency phone service for street children in need of assistance. Nobody thought the idea was possible at the time. But after listening to the children she wanted to help. 


JEROO BILLIMORIA:Childline came from street kids saying there were lots of uncles and didis, which social workers were called, but there was no one there for them in the night. That’s the reason. They wanted something which was 24 hours, where if they were being harassed by the police or they were unwell there was a place they could call. And that’s where it was started. We actually did a survey with street kids with just icons where the street kids themselves filled out the survey, so like hospitals or the ambulance signal, police they have put a stick. Those sort of icons on what sort of help we would be needing. And then it came that healthcare was probably the biggest need of the street kids and how to achieve it. The whole infrastructure of Childline was built around what would be the best way for street kids. The reason we didn’t start with a local number, then I could have started the service overnight, but it took us two years to get a toll-free number, is because the street kids said that, “We travel from Bombay to Goa to Delhi to Bangalore, wherever, by just getting on a train and then we want to have something where we have the same number everywhere.” And that was the reason why we really advocated for a toll-free number, which did take us a long time to get. My one tip is just listen to the people you want to do it with. By listening, deep listening, to where people are coming from and building from that is what will bring about the change we wish to see. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Talking to Jeroo reminded me of the conversation I had with Michael Bungay Stanier on the podcast. Michael is one of the world’s top executive coaches. And in his book, The Advice Trap, he talks about taming your advice monster. What he means is stop rushing to give advice. Michael recommends replacing this with a new set of habits. Number one, be curious. Curious. Really curious. By which he means listen. Listen. Listen as opposed to talking. Number two, be often in the way you open that moment for coaching. And number three, be lazy in the sense of letting a person find the solution themselves. Initially, I found this really tough to get my head around because for so much of the time where I would come from my leadership attitude, I’ve always been rushing to help people. With good intentions, of course, trying to magically jump in with a solution. So I found his teaching provocative. 


MICHAEL BUNGAY STANIER: I mean, I wrote it deliberately to be provocative because most of the people that I end up working with, and you’re a perfect example, they wouldn’t naturally describe themselves as lazy people. They are typically driven, ambitious, hard-working people who, they enjoy their work, and they’re like, “I love this. I love the busyness. I love the commitment to it. I’ve got big dreams for myself and for the world and for my business.” And being lazy feels quite counterintuitive. But it’s not just that because when I say slow down jumping in and fixing other people’s problems for them, create space for them, most people intellectually get that. There’s a deeper resistance, JP, which is, “Well, how am I adding value? Am I still being helpful if I’m not being helpful and giving people the ideas and the solutions and the opinions?” One of the deeper resistance, and this is kind of why I created the advice monsters because they actually speak to deeper ego states that keep us wanting to jump in and not staying curious a little bit longer is that, “Well, if I’m not giving advice, who am I? And if I’m not taking care of this person, who am I? And if I’m handing over control of this conversation or this project or this moment to the other person, who am I?” It takes a degree or self-work on your sense of self and confidence to say, “Look, my job is to, particularly in a corporate setting, to enable greatness around me. That means actually decentering myself.” And that’s an odd experience if like we mostly do in our careers we spend a lot of time trying to center ourselves. Pay attention to me. Promote me. Let me lead this team. Let me take on this challenge. To then go, but how do I now get out of the way so other people can now step in to what’s required requires a certain degree of courage. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It’s so well said, Michael, this notion of decentering myself, not being any more the center of the world but being there to serve the others so that they can achieve more. And you can achieve through their success a lot more together actually. Decentering ourselves, moving beyond ourselves as a point of reference and focusing more on what we can contribute to society is something that we should all strive towards as positive leaders. Michael’s coaching helped me understand that and has had a profound impact on the way I lead and listen today. In his best-selling Coaching Habits book, he shared the power of the seven essential questions. The O in what else question is one of my favorites. It encourages a deeper level of listening and offers more options for the next steps. Decentering is one important practice. Another is active listening. Active listening involves giving the speaker your full attention and processing their message before formulating a response. Avoid interrupting or finishing their sentences. Resist the impulse to interject with comments or questions every time there’s a silence. And give clear signals that you are listening to the speaker so that they feel you are hearing their message. Use verbal and non-verbal gestures such as notes, eye contact and smile. One of my recent podcast guests, Indra Nooyi, former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, honed her active listening skills on the debate team at high school. Because only by listening to an opposing point of view could she respond effectively. And it’s an ability she carried on into her entire professional life. 


INDRA NOOYI: You know, I went to a Roman Catholic school in Madras, in Chennai, Holy Angels convent. And at that time the nuns from Ireland were still there teaching. It was wonderful to have those nuns there who invested in two things. One, they said you all have to have the right diction and way of talking. So they took a few kids under their wing. My sister and I were both a year apart in the same school. We were one of the few that the nuns picked because we were bustling with eagerness to study. The nuns taught us how to speak. Diction, not in a singsong way like we do with the Indian languages. They really helped us with diction. And the second thing they said was, “You’ve got to be able to listen and articulate points of view. You’ve got to listen to different points of view and articulate a point of view.” And the school had an outstanding debating team. First it was elocution competitions, and then it was debating teams, where you had to argue for or against. Leading all the way to impromptu debates, where you’d go to a debate, pick a topic from a bowl, and start to talk. So it was difficult times but, you know, you had to read and be aware of issues all the time because you never knew when a topic was going to be thrown at you that you had to make a case. When you entered debating competitions, you had to show confidence, mastery of the subject. You had to be clear in your articulation of ideas. And be precise. That’s a skill that I think every leader needs to have. And I think in many, many ways, that skill was developed, honed, and fine-tuned, starting with my debating days in Holy Angels convent, and then progressing on through the years. But I stayed on the debating team right through my undergraduate college and my postgraduate degree in Calcutta. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I think that’s an amazing story because to my knowledge, across the world, actually, there’s so few schools who are teaching the art of debating. So few. And at a time where a growing number of people are using ChatGPT and generative AI to access the knowledge, I think what the art of debating provided you, I guess, Indra, is developing your critical thinking. Because you have to not only acquire some knowledge you’ve got to make sense of it and then you’ve got to listen to others, understand their point of view, and then form your own point of view in return in response to that, which I believe is very powerful. 


INDRA NOOYI: That’s a very, very good point because in those days, as you said, there was none of these tools, including no internet, no computer. We had to go to the library and research topics. After you’d developed your argument, you almost had to think about what would my opponent say and where would that person get their argument from. And you had to research those arguments too to be able to say, “How will I craft a path when it came to my rebuttal?” You spend hours in the library going through material, reading, learning, digesting, drawing conclusions. In a way, today’s world, everything is presented to us in a digested way, even a speech can be presented to us now through GPT. However, even though it was tedious and arduous, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world. Because it was a social experience as much as it was a discovery. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Completely. The way you understand life from your beliefs and thinking is only one way to look at it. Listening to other people’s perspectives allows you to broaden your horizons and encourages personal growth. And if you present yourself as a patient listener, people are more likely to want to communicate with you and to listen to what you have to say. Having good communication within a team, at work, or at home, is so, so important. In fact, according to Kim Cameron, professor in management and organization at the University of Michigan, it is the single most important predictor of a team’s success. 


KIM CAMERON: We are involved right now in a study, actually as we speak, where particularly in health care organizations people are overwhelmed. They’re working 70-hour weeks and then get a phone call, “Can’t you come in for one more shift?” Or we’ve got patients waiting for beds who are going to struggle and not survive if they don’t get the beds, but we don’t have the beds. And it just creates enormous amount of pressure and anxiety. Turns out, there are two or three factors that have emerged as being really important. One of them has to do with a sense of purpose, profound meaning, and so on. “I’m willing to stick with this because I know I’m going to save lives. I know it’s difficult right now for me but it matters so much. It’s at the very core of who I am as a person.” That is a major predictor. Another one, interestingly, has to do with the communication or the information shared by the leader. The extent to which the leader informs me, nurtures me, gives me feedback, provides a sense that I’m valuable in the organization, that has emerged as a very, very important factor, which is sort of related to this idea that I feel valued, I feel like I have an important place in the organization, and so on. But the way that that occurs mainly is the kind of information that I get from the boss. Those two factors, now, there are many others, of course, but those two factors ended up emerging as really important. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: We’ve all experienced communication breakdowns. One minute you’re having a normal conversation with someone, and the next, you are fighting or one of you has shut down. Negative interactions take a real toll on our relationships. Studies show that we need five positive interactions to make up for every negative interaction we have with someone close to us.


KIM CAMERON: The 5 to 1 ratio is essentially an ideal. For example, if you are in an interview and you mess up on a question, it actually will take five positives to overcome the impact of that negative. But as it turns out, people flourish most when they are in the presence of five positive inputs for every negative input. It’s for several reasons. One theory has to do with an article written by my colleague Roy Baumeister who did a survey of the psychological literature. And the conclusion of that survey was captured by the title of the article. The title was, Bad is Stronger than Good, which is true. Everything can go well today and I can get whacked on the side of the head by some negative feedback and it can ruin my day. So the question is, how do you rationalize the fact that bad is stronger than good with the idea that positive actually helps people flourish? Part of the explanation for that is this 5 to 1 ratio, more positives will overcome the impact of one negative. The other is people learn more from the positive in terms of their behavior than they do from the negative. Emotionally, we respond to negatives, that is, something will ruin my day emotionally. But if I’m exposed to two different inputs, one is doing the task correctly and the other one is doing it poorly and trying to overcome the mistakes, I will learn best from the positive as opposed to the negative. So behaviors, if we want to change behaviors, exposure to the positive is the best way to go. We can affect emotions with the negative feedback. So five-to-one overcomes the impact is the point. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Be aware of the ratio of positive and negative comments you make to your colleagues and friends and family. Aim to move the proportion closer to the ideal of five to one at a minimum. Lead by example. One positive leader who uses deep listening and positive communication to establish impactful connection with other people is the marketing executive and entrepreneur Bozoma Saint John. It’s an important feature of the work she’s done with companies such as PepsiCo, Apple, and Uber. It is based on an understanding she developed at a young age when change was a constant feature in her life. She was born in Connecticut to Ghanaian parents then moved to Ghana when she was six months old, then to Washington, D.C., then to Kenya and back to Ghana again before her family finally settled in Colorado when she was 12. 


BOZOMA SAINT JOHN: Every time I entered a new playground, literally and figuratively, I had to reintroduce myself. I had to get people to say my name correctly. I had to find allies and friends immediately. I had to know who the bullies were and stay clear of them or make them my friends. I had to pick up cultural cues that would not make me a social pariah, perhaps sometimes very different from the place I was just in. Because that happens all the time, right, innocently you say something or do something and everybody says, “Oh, she’s so uncool.” And then you’re stuck. You’re stuck at the table by yourself eating lunch alone. And so, my childhood I think just set me up really well for an understanding of how to both acclimate to new environments without a ton of fear—I can’t say that I don’t have fear—but helped me to get comfortable in my fear of new experiences, new people, and also gain the confidence that you can find friends anywhere. All you have to do is be open to it. All you have to do it ask the right questions. All you have to do is make sure that you’re interested in them as much as you want them to be interested in you. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: In a way, it’s about really getting outside of your zone of comfort many times since your very early days and daring, daring to connect, daring to ask, daring to engage, daring to meet. When you show genuine interest in others, you’re acknowledging their worth and recognising their unique experiences, perspectives, and feelings. It creates a space where people feel safe to express themselves openly and to engage in meaningful conversations. Active listening coupled with empathy allows for an even deeper connection as people feel that their thoughts and feelings are not only heard but also genuinely understood. One of the most important qualities leaders should develop is empathy and the ability to listen really deeply. How did you learn to develop that critical capability I think that every leader, whatever level the person is it doesn’t matter to me, can actually embrace, be an incredible listener of talking much less and listening deeply not superficially. How did you learn that?


BOZOMA SAINT JOHN: You know, I think I learned as much from leaders and people I worked for who did it right as much as I learned it from people who did it wrong. 




BOZOMA SAINT JOHN: You have some natural qualities I’m sure that people are born with, I think that I’m naturally born with, but I think it’s nurture in the experiences of being led that actually help you to shape who you are as a leader. That’s why I don’t think it’s a singular journey. As the inputs come from so many different places that there are the positives and the negatives that then form who you are. And so sometimes I looked at really bad leaders and I’m just like, “Ooh! You must have had some really terrible people in your life. Some people taught you some bad... yeah, some people really steered you wrong,” you know? It’s almost like a group project. Great leaders are not just great leaders because they are. They’re great leaders because they were led very well. They were led very, very well. When I think about the experiences of empathy, or of listening, hearing, both of those and all of those experiences are borne out of my own personal experience that happened to me in my life, where I didn’t feel heard or I didn’t feel seen, and therefore I want to make sure other people are heard and other people are seen, as much it was from people who really did hear me and see me. I think the thing that always scares us as leaders is that we think we have to textbook as if the office or our teams can only see what is the professional or the corporate life. But how is that possible? We are human beings with one experience. 




BOZOMA SAINT JOHN: And so, the empathy of understanding why someone behaves the way they do, or why they wouldn’t show up in a meeting, or why they would be quiet, why they would be afraid to say the thing that’s on their mind, why they would be so dismissive of other people, that is not just about the workspace. That’s also about the personal space. What else is going on in their lives that is causing them to behave this way? And so, for me the listening is as much about what a person says as is much it is thinking about what it is that might be also causing them to be the way that they are, and then picking up those clues. Because people won’t often tell you that. You have to infer. And so yes, I do think it’s very important as a leader to know your team so well that you can tell when someone walks in and their energy is off. Something is different. And either excusing them, without saying anything, allowing them to be, or helping to find a way to encourage them. And as long as you are that in tune and care that much, you’ll be a much more effective leader and a much more positive one in that case because people will see your care of them. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Deep, empathetic listening requires a level of emotional intelligence, listening for what is alive in a person that has not been spoken yet. Observe the speaker’s body language, the tone of their voice, pauses or omissions. Sometimes the unsaid words will make themselves clear if you listen with your intuition and your eyes as well as your ears. 


RITA ROY: We must always remain whole. We must always remain whole. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Rita Roy is president and CEO of the Mastercard Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the world. One of Rita’s crucible moments came when after 31 years of marriage her beloved husband, Jim, died of cancer. She spoke to me about the experience of journeying with him in the last year of his life and the powerful lessons he taught her about the value of listening well. 


RITA ROY: And we had many conversations about what his life had meant and what our lives had meant together. And within a year I lost my mum as well. And sometimes you think when you face grief that you will never recover. And of course, perhaps a small part of you has lost something so deep you can’t put words to. But at the same time, I like to think about, for people who have faced or who are facing something similar, as daunting, and as frightening as this is, when I look back now, it’s been a few years, I hold on to a few critical conversations. I know that that love which was unconditional lives inside of me. And I need to find ways to give it expression, expression in friendships, expression in the love and passion I have for the work and our mission, in small ways in how you take a moment when you see somebody who’s struggling with something. And maybe the only thing you can do is smile, or the only thing you can do is say hello. Or even better, the only thing you can do if they trust you and they share is to listen. And so, I think of crucible moments as moments then which infuse, at least for me, has infused my life in so many other ways, of not just how we lead or how I lead but how I live. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: The mark of a great leader is to be tuned into the world around you and not preoccupied with the world inside you. Just being able to offer a listening ear to somebody is really huge. And sometimes it is as simple as that to have a positive impact. It is certainly a great place for all of us to start. I’m Jean-Philippe Courtois, you’ve been listening to Positive Leadership. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please do take the time to leave a comment or rating because it really means a lot to us. And if you’d like to get more practical tips on how to improve your leadership practice today, listen to my new series, The 9 Powers of Positive Leadership, which takes you step by step through the nine key powers or behaviors in bite-sized episodes. Or head over to my LinkedIn page to sign up for my monthly newsletter, Positive Leadership & You. Thanks for listening. Goodbye.