Medical Staff

Leadership tip: Master the art of listening

Medical Staff Leader Insider, May 5, 2011

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Most great leaders are listeners. There is probably a reason we have one mouth and two ears. In my own personal experience, I have never learned anything when I am the one doing the speaking. Many of us associate leadership with great speeches, not the important connection that comes from listening. There is no better example of the importance of listening than the history and physical portion of a medical examination. If you listen long enough and ask the right questions, the patient will tell you what is wrong with him or her.

John Hamm, a leadership educator at Santa Clara University, says that leaders who think they have all the answers put themselves in “a very lonely, isolated position where information becomes unreliable and useful input is stifled. Effective leaders, by contrast, understand that their role is to bring out the answers in others. They do this very clearly and explicitly, seeking contributions, challenges, and collaboration from the people that report to them, using their positional power not to dominate the decision-making process.”

How many times in the healthcare field have you seen an edict delivered from above (i.e., The Joint Commission, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, or hospital administrators) that was not thought out completely and was not allowed to be changed by the frontline physicians, nurses, technicians, and unit secretaries?

When directives come from the top with little or no input from the individuals who are expected to carry them out, unintended consequences result and workarounds abound. If corporate leaders write a code of conduct for the medical staff to implement and follow without input, they invite conflict and disruption.

So what is so difficult about active listening? P. M. Forni, in his book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), states: “As listeners, we have an obligation to concentrate just on listening before doing anything else. Good listening has three basic components. When you are ready to listen: (1) plan your listening, (2) show that you are listening, [and] (3) be a cooperative listener.” Plan your listening by putting down what you are reading, putting your cell phone on vibrate, or closing the screen on your laptop and committing yourself to silence. Show the person who is speaking that you are listening by doing the following:

  •  Face the person
  • Use eye-to-eye contact
  • Sit at the same level
  • Eliminate barriers, such as a desk, between you and the speaker
  • Manage your posture and facial expressions to demonstrate alertness

Most people know when others are not listening because they fail to do one or more of the above items listed (just ask your spouse). Lastly, cooperate when listening by doing the following:

  • Nod
  • Use terms such as “I see,” “I understand,” and “Okay”
  • Ask for clarification
  • Make statements that show that you are truly concerned, such as “I know how you feel,” “Could you elaborate on that more?” or “Why do you see the problem in that light?”

Using the communication tips above, leaders can impart empathy and sincerity, which are the keys to good communication, whether you are listening or speaking. Remember that as a leader, you are responsible for ensuring appropriate and thorough two-way communication.

The above is an excerpt from the new book Medical Staff Leadership Essentials: A Guide to Developing Leadership Skills and Recruiting the Next Generation, by R. Dean White, DDS, MS, available at

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