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Leadership Lessons: Knowing When to Listen Versus When to Speak

Adam C. Bandelli, Ph.D.

As a leader, when is it important to speak up? When should you listen? Some of the biggest problems people create for themselves involve speaking versus listening, (i.e. speaking when you shouldn’t, and not speaking when you should). Ironically, you can get into as much trouble by what you don’t say as opposed to what you do say. Answering the question “Why didn’t you say that?” versus “Why did you say that?” can be just as difficult.

Regardless of personality type, many leaders tend to speak first and ask questions later. My colleague’s wife jokingly tells him, “When it comes to your mouth, your method is usually ready, fire, aim.” Anyone can run into this problem if they’re not careful.

So, what causes leaders to speak up when they shouldn’t? Why do most people need to listen more than they speak? Here are some guidelines for balancing the ongoing battle between speaking and listening:

  1. Listen More Than You Speak – Not hear more – but listen more. Hearing someone speak and listening to what they say are two very different things. Active listening is a skill that most people need to continually develop, especially in our very noisy culture. For introverts, this means taking in what is said and then being proactive to respond. For extroverts, this means taking a pause to hear someone out, and then responding after the other person has had a chance to share their perspective. As an extrovert, this is something I am constantly working on. I tend to think as I speak and process things quickly when solving problems. When I take the time to actively listen to others, I have found that we get to practical solutions quicker.
  2. Make Your Words Count – When you speak, know that your words matter to you and the other person. Many leaders need to cut out the clutter they build around what they truly need to say. Some of the executives I work with have challenges with rambling on and not being short, clear, and succinct. Everyone can all work on reducing the preamble speech before they deliver the real point. Wise leaders know when to say the right thing at the right time in the right way. One of the primary ways you can count someone as being a strong leader is because of what they say, how they say it, and the timing and power of their chosen words.
  3. Check for Alignment and Agreement: The words leaders say are important. It’s imperative to ensure that the audience understands the speaker’s point of view. I’ve seen it time and time again when a leader goes on a rant and misses the opportunity to connect with their audience. They lose the crowd and miss the chance to captivate their people. When leaders engage in conversation, they must pause along the way, asking whether what they are saying makes sense to the listener. It’s essential to take questions and pull people into the dialogue and conversation. This creates a more robust discussion and allows people to feel valued and important.

Regardless of age, personality, or seniority, everyone can all change their communication for the better. It takes work. Great leaders continually grow in what they say, what they don’t say, and how intently they listen to others. Make sure you take time to reflect on the impact you want to have on others. It is important to know when to speak and when to listen. If you do this, you’ll get your team on the same page and achieve great things.


Written by Adam C. Bandelli, Ph.D.

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Adam C. Bandelli, Ph.D.
Adam C. Bandelli, Ph.D. is the Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates, a boutique consulting firm focusing on leadership advisory services and organizational effectiveness. He is the author of the book, What Every Leader Needs: The Ten Universal and Indisputable Competencies of Leadership Effectiveness. The book is featured in the CEOWORLD magazine's annual review of "Best Books to Read." For more information about the book, visit the author’s website.


Adam C. Bandelli is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.