Listening for success – how hard could it be?

When I was a young boy I regularly spent Saturday afternoon watching the midday movie on T.V. . It was a great form of escapism after a morning of sporting endeavours. Often I would watch the classic war movies from the fifties and sixties. In these movies there would frequently be a moment when the hero would be on bended knee saying something like “gather ’round and listen up”. The hero would then proceed to explain the battle plan for how they were going to take the hill from the enemy. Without fail all the soldiers would listen and nod in agreement and execute the plan to perfection. Of course, the hero would normally die performing some act of bravery, defeating the enemy and then the movie end with a fading flag waving orchestral conclusion.

The focus of these films was on the hero, the ‘star’, but on reflection the real heroes were those that were able to listen to the plan, absorb all the details and then carry it out.

In 1957, Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens published an article simply titled ‘Listening to people’ in which they identified four traits of good listeners have:

1. A good listener thinks ahead and tries to anticipates conclusions or where the conversation is going.

2. Good listeners continually review the evidence used in the conversation and determine whether the evidence is valid.

3. During the conversation a good listener will regularly review and summarise what has been said.

4. Good listeners engage their other senses to determine whether the body language of the talker matches what they are saying, paying attention to non verbal cues.

In 2011, Julian Treasure gave a TED talk on ‘Five ways to listen better’. Below is a link to that talk:

What strikes me is that more than fifty years lies between the Nichols and Stevens article and Treasure’s TED talk.

This underscores the difficulty in becoming a skillful listener. Yet it is a skill that leaders need to constantly train and employ to become more effective in both executing a vision and engaging authentically with those they lead.

Try some of the traits described above or watch the TED talk. Once you have given them a go let me know what you think…..


Nichols, R. and Stevens, L. (1957). Listening to people. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 35, Iss. 5, p. 85-92.