One of my veteran teachers came up to my makeshift desk on the stage in the cafeteria where I oversee lunch duty three times a day, each time with four hundred of my favorite middle school students. She asked if she could bend my ear for a minute. I checked my watch and responded, “We’ve still got twenty minutes left in this lunch period, bend away as long as you need.” For the next fifteen minutes or so, she shared her thoughts, feelings, and frustrations with me about a couple situations that were very important to her. During that time, I didn’t say a word. While she spoke, I looked her in the eye, nodded my head in affirmation at points, and simply listened. She closed with a quote that I frequently share with my staff, “I know you always say to never bring up a problem without a solution. Here’s a couple things I think could help…” Then she shared those ideas. Finally, I spoke, too. “I think those are some great solutions. Thank you for sharing them. And I want you to know that I appreciate you bringing all of that to me.”
Over the years as a leader, I’ve learned that all of the research on “active listening” is very accurate. Face the speaker. Make eye contact. Focus on what is being said. Nod your head. But the older I get and the I truly listen to people, the more I realize that most times, I don’t need to really say anything. Sure, it’s important to ask questions and make sure you understand the message. More often than not, though, the people you serve already know what they need to do. They just really need your support and the affirmation that you are standing with them. That you see them.
Does that sound too easy? In a way, it is. But (and this is a big “but”), it takes a heavy emotional toll. Because when a leader truly listens, they accept the burden of carrying their followers feelings. Emotions have true weight and heft. Think of it in terms of powerlifting. When a seasoned lifter plans their squat, deadlift, or bench press, they carefully map out the volume, intensity, and load of the workout. There’s only so much gas in the tank on any given day to complete that workout. The more you train, the more you’re able to lift. But those physical reserves are always finite. In short, you eventually run out of energy. And when you do, that’s it.
Leadership works the same way. You start each day with a certain amount of “money in your account.” Each interaction throughout the day takes a deposit from that overall account. And once the emotional reserves are depleted, you can’t withdraw more money. The battery is dead and must be recharged. Like the powerlifter, the more you “train” as a leader, the more you’re able to absorb and expend. But those emotional reserves are finite.
So there are two takeaways today. First, the best listeners often never need to speak at all. Second, be conscious of how much “water is still in the well” after each interaction. Since I’ve already rambled about multiple topics with way too many metaphors, I’ll end with my favorite quote on listening.