A Novice’s Journey: “Will I improve upon the silence?”

Don Frick penned Robert Greenleaf’s biography. He often regales audiences with the stories of the man who started a movement almost 50 years ago. Don often marveled at the way “Bob” listened: long stretches of silence with well-placed questions targeted at helping the other discover their own path forward.

There are three Greenleaf quotes that remind us of the importance of becoming better listeners:

“The natural servant’s…response to any problem is to listen first.”

“True listening builds strength in other people.”

“In saying what I have on my mind will I really improve upon the silence.”

Those committed to the journey that connects our servant nature to how we lead understand what Greenleaf was saying. Some (including me) have a hard time putting his thoughts into practice everyday, in every situation and with everyone we are entrusted to serve.

Why is it so hard? Perhaps the difficulty stems from:

  • Knowing the answer already.
  • Not having time to really dedicate to listening.
  • Thinking that doling out advice is the best way to serve.
  • Being frustrated with the rate and pace of a project.
  • Not really understanding where the other person is coming from.

As a leader, “you have been there, done that, gotten the tee-shirt”, but your teammate hasn’t. Sharing what you know may seem expeditious but is it really? The Chinese proverb maybe a helpful reminder here: “You give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.” Surely there are exceptions but for the most part investing the time upfront is the better path for the long term.

Time is always an issue. We have are so busy that we don’t sit down and have the discussions we need.   When someone appears at our door and we really don’t have the time, we can ask ourselves:

  • Is this an emergency that requires my attention at this moment? If it is, redirect and make the time. In most cases, it isn’t and we can schedule time to discuss whatever the topic is.

Advice is a powerful tool but it shouldn’t be a substitute for helping others find their own way. The advice we offer comes from our own learned experiences and by observing those around us. It is worth its weight in gold. In our last blog, we discussed that sharing our stories is a great way to help others grow wiser. Once the story is told, perhaps we can follow up with a few probing questions like:

  • What thoughts occur to you from my story?
  • How might those observations help you with your next steps?
  • What help do you need to move forward?

When frustrated, it may be impossible to listen. Servant-leaders are human. Those of us journeying to become the best possible servant-leader we can be will be tested in frustrating times.   Greenleaf called us to invest in a “long arduous discipline of learning to listen.” So that “the automatic response to any problem is to listen first.”

Finally, getting where the other is coming from will allow us to listen more fully. We may never be able to fully walk in another’s shoes. We can build real and lasting relationships built on trust. When we do, we will listen with open ears and an open heart.

Perhaps your barriers to listening are different. Please share your experiences and how you have been working to improve your listening!

With you on this journey!








by Pat Falotico

Chief Executive Officer

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