Lead by Listening

In one of my favorite episodes of the web television series, “Mozart in the Jungle,” Maestro Rodrigo De Souza declares: “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them.”

I first learned about the power of silence from my music-loving father. He showed me the skill it takes to engage with silence, whether it be in mastering the bow as it meets the string, or executing a graceful waltz or Western two-step.  

Later, my hard-won sales experience confirmed for me that what is not said is often more significant that what is said.

Time and again, over the past 15 years in the nonprofit arena, I have been fascinated by the enormity of what is not being said, in meetings and presentations, and the reluctance of management to identify these elephants in the room.  

It seems that nonprofit organizations are particularly good at this.  Perhaps this is because board members only meet once a month or quarter, and management lacks financial incentive to speed progress and deliver results.

It is self-serving for managers and decision makers to foster silence within their organizations. If management fails to draw out what is not being said by employees, organizations risk remaining static. An unwillingness to engage in employee feedback or customer surveys is a definite red flag. There may be comfort in maintaining silence, but to move beyond mediocrity we must interpret the silence, take the risk to engage in dialogue, and do the hard work necessary to change and grow.

Last spring, I was asked to speak at the memorial service for Dr. Joachim Pengel. He was my graduate professor and the former director of the Counseling program at the University of Hartford. In my eulogy, I shared that the most important thing Dr. Pengel taught me was not a philosophy of psychology or method for resolving client problems, but how to listen.

Long before Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, and Deepak Chopra shared the value of quiet and meditation, there was Dr. Pengel, demonstrating to his students his own mastery of how to listen.

“Be still, be patient, just listen,” he said. “You might not recognize the heart of the issue at first, but you can be sure the client will keep repeating his problem until you finally get it.”

I’ve cultivated the art of listening and it has been my secret weapon—as a successful sales representative, a business owner, a community advocate, and most importantly, as a mother.  

On those crazy mornings when my children were dragging their feet to get out the door and off to school, it was always the unspoken cues that gave me the most leverage in moving the mission forward. If I could manage to slow down, take a breath, and tune in to them, I would invariably discover the earache, the heartache, or simple fear behind a “bad” behavior. Working with their resistance and listening intently to the real reasons behind the struggle would always help the morning go more smoothly.

Attending to silence in the workplace can be a powerful tool. If there are individuals who were once actively engaged in daily activities or driving progress who are no longer showing up in the same way, take note. This may be an indication that there is something going on, new ideas are not truly welcome, or a “culture of collaboration” is merely lip service from a department head.

Tim McClure, a well-known speaker on professional leadership notes, “The biggest concern for any organization should be when their most passionate people become quiet.”

You can be sure Rodrigo De Souza would hear the disharmony in that.

Susan Ahlstrom is Director of Development at the Academy for Career Exploration based in Rhode Island. She has worked for years to help people and organizations connect and achieve their full potential. Susan helped launch one of the first Body Shop franchises in the U.S. and is the founder of Duende Networks, LLC, a consulting company that provides coaching and resources for women and teens, empowering them to lead healthier, more expansive lives. Susan has three children and recently moved to RI to be closer to the inspiration and energy of the ocean.