Listen Up

Molly Rowe, for HealthLeaders Media, May 2, 2008

I read a statistic that said humans speak at a rate of about 150 words per minute but can understand up to 3,000. If that’s true, why does it so often seem that people only hear half of what we say?

Over time, we’ve learned to fill that empty space with other things (e-mails, doodling, ESPN) and, as a result, we’ve gone from being overly qualified listeners to woefully incompetent. We are genetically predestined to be bad listeners, and leaders, I’m sorry to say, may be the worst.

A lot of leaders tell me, “Oh, I listen to my staff. In fact, I make a point to swing by their offices once a week just to chat and listen to what they have to say.” I can usually guess how those chats go. The leader stops by unexpectedly, says “How are things?” and, without waiting for a real answer, launches into her agenda—her concerns, her goals, her complaints—before moving on to the next employee.

The fact that leaders usually do all the talking is understandable considering that talking is a lot of what you do. You pitch to potential investors, speak with reporters, and present at board meetings. So, when there’s dead air to fill or a question to be answered, of course you feel it’s up to you to do the talking.

The problem with talking all the time is that it makes it very hard to listen. And, if you don’t listen, you miss out on critical information about your organization, your staff, your patients, your community, the list goes on and on.

So, how do you know if you or your management team talks too much?

At a recent conference, I learned about conversation diagrams. A conversation diagram draws lines to show where discussions in a meeting take place.

Say you’re the senior leader at a weekly staff meeting. As the leader, you’re the A in the conversation diagram. Staff members are all B's. Now draw a line where the discussions take place: Are the lines A-B (leader to staff) or B-B (staff to staff)?

If you’re like most organizations, you’ll see a lot of A-B discussions. The hospital leader speaks, a staff person responds, the leader speaks again, a staff person responds.

This type of discussion is fine if the meeting’s sole intent is to answer your questions and seek your input, but that’s usually not the point of a meeting (at least it shouldn’t be).

Meetings should be used to elicit ideas and feedback from a variety of stakeholders. They should be used to grow your staff, to help them learn to answer questions. And they’re a great opportunity for leaders to listen. To this end, your discussions should be B-B (staff to staff, staff to staff, staff to staff) with a couple of A’s mixed in.

I’m not suggesting that you sit around and diagram every meeting (because then you’ll be diagramming instead of listening) but try it once—in a variety of places: board meetings, staff retreats, even casual conversations. You never know. Once you start really listening to those 150 or so words, you might be surprised by what you learn.

Molly Rowe is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at


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