Listen Up: Leadership And The Virtual Q-Tip

SwabLeaders, if they are to live up to their role as those who “show the way”, need to do a lot of talking.

However, there’s a trap door lurking on that speaking platform, and if we fall in it, we can take the teams we lead down with us.

The trap is simply this:   We do more talking than  focused listening.

I know, it sounds pretty simple. We have a mouth, we have ears, we just use them both, right?

Oh yeah, I listen all the time“, we may tell ourselves.

We can even totally convince ourselves that our “talk to listen ratio” is totally in balance.

And that when we do listen, there’s the issue of whether the information is just bouncing off of us, rather than being absorbed – I call that “blocked listening”.

The thing is,  if we really ever took the time to consciously track our behavior,  there’d be a surprising result.

We’re typically out of balance, and when listening does happen, it tends to be more blocked than focused.

There’s just too much information swirling around in our heads.  Too many distractions.  It’s SO much easier just to speak than to deeply comprehend.

It’s an interesting and frustrating disconnect, one that can only be resolved by something that I like to call a “Virtual Q-tip“.

Yep, we need to clean out all the clutter from our heads, and properly prepare to be a focused listener.

How can we do this?

Here’s an exercise I developed over the years that really helped me.

Once a day, find a quiet place where you can tune out all distractions.  Or,  if you have an office,  close the door, and turn off your computer and handheld (that’s probably the toughest thing of all to do, I know).

Take in the silence for a few minutes – 5 tops.  Take deeper breaths.  Feel and “hear” what it’s like not to have all those thoughts swirling around.   Just take in the scene around you.  Take a look at parts of your immediate surroundings that you had probably forgotten were even there.    You’re just “in the moment”.

That’s a proper focused listening environment.     You’ve used your virtual Q-tip.

The trick is to try to recreate that environment when someone is talking to you.  If you’re successful,  you’ll be a much better listener, and because of your practiced self-awareness, your actual to perceived talking to focused listening ratio will be much more in line.

Then you can move on to the ratio itself, and reap the many benefits of what proper balance brings you.

Better leadership, better ideas, better collaboration, a better team- and a better company.

Lead well!

(Photo by Bigstock)








  1. says

    Hi Terry, great point here. Listening definitely requires discipline and your idea about closing the door and elminating distractions for 5 minutes is awesome. I bet you can probably come up with some pretty good ideas in those quiet 5 minutes as well. Thanks for the post and have a good week.

  2. says

    Hi Scott, good point on using those 5 minutes for idea generation as well. Oddly, my best ideas were generated in the morning, in the shower. May sound strange, but when you think about it, it is a pretty good meditation chamber! 🙂
    All the best,

  3. says

    Totally agree, when I run team building workshops I give people a list of things they could improve on as team members that will influence the team overall. The number one thing that people choose to focus on is talk less and listen more and when I ask them at the end of the adventure they always say, they tried at first but then fell into old habits. Being aware however that it is hard to just listen and not talk is the first step in making them better team players and then like everything to become good at it they need to make a conscious decision to change and then practice.


  4. says

    Thanks Lynn for your comment! Interesting observation from your workshops -it’s all too easy to fall back into old habits, especially when it comes to talking vs. listening. It’s all about intent, and sticking with it.
    Thanks again, and all the best!

  5. says

    My boss does a good job at listening. He actually does a very good job at getting better at all of his shortcomings. He constantly asks us for areas where he can improve. At first it was a little intimidating since he is my boss and I was concerned with what I should tell him, but it’s been a great experience for all involved.


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