Executive Coach: Ability to Listen Needed in IT Leadership Role

When you assume the title of CIO, your open-door policy can easily become nothing more than a slogan. The truth is that you have less time than ever, and your bandwidth to interact with subordinates or peers has probably decreased substantially. At the same time, it's probably never been more important to get information from across the enterprise. So it's crucial for CIOs to make the most of any opportunity to listen.

The CIOs I meet spend a lot of time focusing on how to talk -- to make pitches to CFOs and CEOs, to motivate IT directors and inspire business sponsors -- but I don't hear these CIOs say much about listening. If you're in a leadership role, you might not even be aware of what poor listening looks like. Here are four examples of the kinds of lousy listeners I have encountered during my career. Do you recognize yourself here?

The multitasking listener. Even while having an important meeting, this person keeps an eye on email and even darts out of the room to take a phone call or review paperwork.

The passive listener. This kind of listener says "yes" or "right" and simply nods his head after every sentence uttered by the other person.

The chilling listener. He places barriers on the conversation by wincing, rolling his eyes or using other physical cues that dismiss the other person's ideas.

The emotion-hijacking listener. This poor listener has such a strong emotional reaction to the person speaking that his response steals the conversation and dictates its tone.

Listen Like You Mean It

But take heart: There is a cure. You can increase your emotional intelligence -- and get people to talk to you -- through better listening skills. I'm not talking about "active listening," which involves a prescribed set of behaviors, including leaning forward, making eye contact and frequent nodding. I'm talking about effective listening.

But what does effective listening really mean? It involves listening with the willingness to be influenced by someone else and to learn something new. Here are three important elements of effective listening:


  2. Get comfortable with silence. If there is a lapse in conversation, you have to trust that the other person can fill it. Pay attention to that inner voice that says you have the answers and this person doesn't.

  4. Don't use conversation as a way to assert power. Pay attention to your body language; you want it to indicate openness and willingness. Try listening for three minutes straight without interrupting the person talking. (You may discover that this kind of listening is really appreciated at home, too.)

  6. Clarifying doesn't mean simply repeating. Don't spit the person's words back verbatim, which sounds like you haven't bothered to try to understand what he's said in the first place. And don't spend time formulating a rebuttal or response while the person is talking.

The traditional Chinese character for the word listen is made up of symbols for the eye, the number 10 and the heart. Why? To remind you to listen as though you had 10 eyes and a big heart. Practice this principle the next time a difficult employee or distant colleague walks through your open door. Watch patiently, listen closely and talk less.


Angie O'Donnell is an executive coach at Insight Performance in Dedham, Mass. She can be reached at EQforIT@ciodecisions.com.

This was first published in May 2007

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