5 Tips to Avoid a Critical Leadership Mistake


I knew Gary wasn’t happy.

Early in my career, when I first began leading team-leaders, one of them was clearly struggling – he looked frustrated, sounded frustrated, and it didn’t take a genius to know something was bothering Gary.

So I asked if I could buy him lunch and hear what was on his mind.

As we ate, he began sharing complaint after complaint…he’d been disrespected and abused by a senior manager, his team wasn’t doing as well as he hoped, he wasn’t sure the company’s vision matched his own…and so on.

Gary had appreciated my invitation to lunch and the opportunity to be heard.

But as he started sharing his concerns, I couldn’t stand it…

He was only halfway through his first issue before I interrupted and started “helping”. I offered solutions, tried to help him see the issue or person differently, or pointed out where he might be responsible.

Finally, he looked at me and said, “David! You asked me how I was feeling and what’s bothering me…quit arguing. I’m just trying to tell you how I feel.”

I could have helped Gary, but I wasn’t able to.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way…

Good Intentions or Effective Action?

Gary needed help and so do your team members, but you won’t be able to help them if you make the same critical leadership mistake I did:

I didn’t keep my mouth shut long enough.

We so often think of leadership and influence as talking.

We see rousing speeches in movies, we remember key pieces of advice we’ve heard from our mentors, and we know we have something worthwhile to share.

But when we think of influence only in terms of what we say, we leave out the most important piece:


A recent university study found that when it comes to influencing others, a person’s listening skills outrank their verbal ability.

It makes sense: listening builds trust and helps you get the information you need to offer the person what they most need.

When it comes to helping someone, good intentions don’t make the difference. Effective action, what you do that works, means everything.

I’d intended to help, but in my youthful rush to show what I knew and be valuable, I’d missed the most important thing I could have done.

5 Tips to Improve Your Listening

1. Put away the phone.


Put it on silent, put it face down or stash it in a bag. Get rid of it.

You simply cannot give someone your full attention with the mental stimulation of email, voice messages, and texts. Put it away and focus on the person.

2. Eye contact

Don’t be creepy, but maintain consistent eye contact. For that time, there is nothing else going on, but what the other person has to say.

3. Offer empathy.

Empathy communicates that you understand how the other person feels. You’re not agreeing, sanctioning, promoting or anything else – just recognize the emotions.

Examples: “That must have been frustrating.”  “Sounds like you felt like no one else cared?”  “That would be upsetting.”  “Wow – you must have been excited.”

If they don’t know that you connect, why should they listen to you?

4. Summarize

Before going any farther, take a moment to summarize what the other person has said. Use your own words and ask if you’ve got it right.

If not, ask questions or encourage them to help you get it.

The idea is that you are fully connecting with both their emotions and thoughts. Until you’ve done that, you haven’t listened.

5. Ask permission

Once you’ve fully connected to the emotion and the thought, if you feel you have something helpful to add to the conversation, ask permission to share it.

This is a huge integrity move and demonstrates tremendous respect for the other person.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Something like, “I appreciate you trusting me enough to share those things. Would you be interested in hearing ways you might address that or is it enough to get it off your chest?”

When you fully connect and have acknowledged the other person’s dignity, then you’re in a position to be truly helpful.

I learned this one the hard way – and I’m thankful to Gary for having the courage (or frustration) to tell me what I was doing.

Your Turn

How do you connect with your team members?

How have your leaders connected with you?

Leave your answers in the comments below!

Take care,

David M. Dye

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(Photo by Karen Rubado)

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David is President of Trailblaze, Inc and shares twenty years experience teaching, coaching, leading, and managing.  Contact David today to improve your leadership and team performance.

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