Listen with passion!

George Haines
Director of Operations
Peregrine Leadership Institute
Gillette, Wyoming
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In November 2007, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership and management issues entitled "The Baker's Potluck." This was the third series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen," the second being "The Baker's Menu") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's new series is entitled "Recipes for Success" and touches on a variety of leadership and management topics. Along with each article is an actual recipe for a favorite public works dish submitted by a member. Each recipe is a favorite from the members in their department. Give them a try.

How well do you listen? Listening is half of the communication process. The reality is that we only retain between 20%-30% of what we hear. When we fail to listen, we risk:

  • Misreading people's intentions
  • Misinterpreting ideas
  • Confusing the issue
  • Misjudging people's qualifications
  • Misunderstanding instructions
  • Jumping to the wrong conclusions
  • Antagonizing people

Of all the attributes of great leaders, the one that I believe can make you stand out among all others is the ability to listen. So, my advice is simple. Listen with passion! If you put the same passion into listening as you do in your work, your family, and other activities, people will notice. So, how do you do this?

One of the problems we encounter in our ability to listen is distractions. If you are in an office, distractions include the telephone, the computer, the radio, and your blackberry or cell phone. If you are on a jobsite, distractions include the noise of construction, equipment, the actual work itself, and the weather. In order to set the tone for being a good listener, you need to minimize the distractions. In my experience, the beginning of setting the tone for effective listening starts with how I set up my office. In addition to my main work area, I have a separate table and chairs away from my desk. When someone comes in to meet with me, I come out from behind my desk to get away from the distractions and sit at the table with them. The intent is to let them know they have my undivided attention. By doing that, I communicate that I value them and their time. For those few minutes, there is nothing more important on my plate. When you set that tone and minimize the distractions, you are ready to listen. If you don't have an office, find a place that is quiet and away from the noise and distractions of the jobsite. It could be a jobsite trailer or even the cab of your pickup truck. It doesn't have to be fancy to be effective.

One of the problems we have as listeners is our natural inclination to spend our time preparing to respond to someone while they are talking to us. If only we would allow ourselves to truly listen to the other person and then make sure that we understand what we heard, we'd be in a much better position when we choose to respond. This type of listening is sometimes called "Active Listening" or "Empathic Listening" as defined by Covey. In the training we do at Peregrine Leadership Institute, we use the term Active Listening. Active Listening is a communication technique that reduces defensiveness and loss of self-esteem, and acts to defuse an emotional exchange. The term "active listening" means the ability to pick up, define, and respond accurately to the feelings expressed by the other person. When Active Listening is employed, people perceive that they are being understood. There are four steps to Active Listening:

  • Listen
  • Question
  • Reflect/Paraphrase
  • Agree

Step 1: Listen. When we say listen, we mean listen to feelings as well as the words. When we listen to the words, we also need to listen for the emotions and the implications of the words. Focus your full attention on the speaker. Minimize distractions. Use verbal and non-verbal encouragers to communicate that it is safe for the speaker to be open to you. When they feel comfortable, they will be more open to you.

Step 2: Question. Ask questions with a purpose. When you ask questions, you demonstrate that you are listening and trying to understand. Asking questions helps you gather information. It also helps you obtain clarification. However, when you ask questions, make sure they are open ended. Use questions such as: "Tell me more..., How do you feel?..., Then what happened?..." Open-ended questions keep the speaker talking. A question such as, "You must feel terrible and want to get back at the person, don't you?" draws conclusions and may put words in the other person's mouth. You don't want to head down that road. You may only be adding fuel to the fire.

Step 3: Reflect/Paraphrase. When you hear what the other person has said, say it back to them in your own words. As you do that, also reflect the feelings that you heard in their words. When you accurately reflect and reframe back to the person what they said, you are making a connection with the speaker and you are headed toward true understanding. True understanding will lead to problem solving. John Maxwell, in his book Becoming a Person of Influence, says, "If you show people how much you care and ask questions in a nonthreatening way, you'll be amazed by how much they'll tell you."

Step 4: Agree. When you have accurately reflected and reframed the thoughts of the speaker, the next step is to get their consent to your reframing. When they say to you, "Yes, that is exactly what I mean," then the speaker knows they have been heard and that you understand what they said. At that point, a solution is near. The term "agree" does not mean that you agree with what they have said. All it means is that the two of you agree that you understand what they said.

John Maxwell defines leadership as influence, nothing more, nothing less. In Becoming a Person of Influence, he talks about the value of listening and lists six benefits to listening:

  • Listening Shows Respect
  • Listening Builds Relationships
  • Listening Increases Knowledge
  • Listening Generates Ideas
  • Listening Builds Loyalty
  • Listening is a Great Way to Help Others and Yourself

Let's look at these points in more detail.

Listening Shows Respect. Maxwell often says that "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." When you truly listen to someone, you are putting them first. That means you are putting yourself second. When you put others first, you are saying I value you and what you have to say. You care about them. When you value and care about others, you are showing respect toward the other person. When you respect others, they will respect you in return.

Listening Builds Relationships. You will have a stronger relationship with someone who listens to you and vice versa, than with someone who is trying to impress you with their knowledge. As an example, think about a key person in your organization who takes phone calls from the public. In the arena of public works, the citizen caller is usually upset about something. Perhaps their garbage didn't get picked up or their driveway got plowed in. When the phone is answered, the most effective receptionist is the one who listens and lets the caller vent about their issue. By allowing this to happen and expressing empathy for the issue, your employee is building a relationship that will help resolve the current issue and also set the tone for any future issues the citizen might have. The receptionist that starts quoting chapter and verse of the City regulation without trying to understand what the caller has to say only reinforces the stereotype of a government bureaucrat that persists in some circles.

Listening Increases Knowledge. Henry J. Kaiser said, "I make progress by having people around me who are smarter than I am and listening to them. And I assume that everyone is smarter about something than I am." You could also say that as long as you are talking, you aren't learning anything you already don't know. Take time to listen, you just might learn something!

Listening Generates Ideas. I've always identified with the style of participative leadership. I believe that the people who do the actual work are in the best position to help decide how we are to accomplish our mission. When your staff knows that you want their input and that you will listen to them, their ideas will come pouring out like opening the floodgates. The result is synergy, which means the ideas offered will be far better than the ones you could think up on your own and result in a better outcome for the organization. It also leads to buy-in from your staff because they participated in the process that resulted in the decision that they are charged to implement.

Listening Builds Loyalty. What happens when people figure out that you don't listen to them? They will find people who will listen to them. The consequences may result in you losing grip on your authority in your job. When leaders are insensitive to others' points of view, it discourages feedback, which in turn isolates and insulates the leader from necessary information. This barrier between the leader and followers eventually results in an ineffective leader. On the other hand, when people identify you as a good listener, they are drawn to you. They value you and what you have to say. Your influence increases and people become loyal to you. You will also get direct and honest feedback from your staff. You will get what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. When you have good information, you can make good decisions.

Listening is a Great Way to Help Others and Yourself. When you become a good listener, you learn more, you build relationships, you generate loyalty, and you gain respect from people. This results in increasing your influence. When you have influence with people, you can make a positive impact on their life. Isn't that what leadership is all about?

So, in summary, when you listen with passion, others will be drawn to you. They will confide in you and tell you the things you need to hear. If they have a problem, they will be willing to bring it to your attention because they know you care about them and want to find solutions, not place blame. You will expand your influence among your peers, your employees, and your superiors. Influence opens a lot of doors and expands your options. With more options, you are able to be more productive. When you are more productive, you are more effective. Listen with passion, a recipe for success!

George Haines will give a presentation at our upcoming Congress in New Orleans. His session is called "Best Places to Work" and takes place Tuesday, August 19 at 10:00. He can be reached at (307) 685-1555 or at



1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup shredded coconut
3 cups flour
1/4 cup pineapple juice
1 tsp butter flavoring
1 cup pecans
4 eggs
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup pineapple
1/2 pound butter
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla

Mix softened butter and sugar. Separate the egg whites from the yolks. Add the egg yolks and then the pecans chopped finely. Add in pureed pineapple (crushed pineapple works well), the shredded coconut and the pineapple juice. Mix in the sour cream and baking soda. Sift in the flour and baking powder. Add the vanilla and butter flavoring and the brown sugar. Then add in the egg whites that have been stiffly beaten. Pour into two nine-inch cake pans and bake for 45 minutes at 375 degrees.


12 oz container whipped cream cheese
1 lb powdered sugar
1/4 cup shredded coconut
1/4 cup finely chopped pecans
1 stick of butter
1/4 cup pineapple pieces
2 tbsp pineapple juice

Allow the two cakes to cool. Mix the frosting ingredients thoroughly (add the juice last), and spread them between the two cakes and on top. Decorate with pineapple pieces (again, crushed pineapple works), and sprinkle additional shredded coconut and chopped pecans on top.

Serves 8 to 10

Don Jacobovitz, P.E.
Public Works Director
Putnam County, FL