The Best Advice I Ever Received

DSRUPTR - Joe Smiley
animated - lego blocks

Perhaps I wasn’t the best child.

Or perhaps I was normal. I dunno.

But I remember focusing the bulk of my attention in my youth on playing Legos, board games, puzzles, Legos, soccer, video games, Legos, GI Joes, Star Wars, and uh, Legos.

Everything else was secondary.

Including, but not limited to, listening to my parents.

img - son not listening to father

I can still remember my Father telling me over and over and over again that I needed to listen… his exact phrase was something along the lines of “you were born with two ears and one mouth, use them proportionately.”

This seemed funny back then, perhaps obvious. But it started to make more sense early in my career, where I noticed most leaders never quite listened intently to anything that anyone said. Sure they listened to employees and customers, but they didn’t actually hear what anyone said.

Instead, they readied their responses, reacted quickly, sometimes speaking over or around people, cutting them off, interjecting, or even worse, being defensive.

img - biggest communication problem

They never truly listened. Intentionally. They thought they knew better.

Had a better idea or strategy. And listening was a waste of time, perhaps even getting upset that the staff wasn’t “smart” enough to understand their vision.

How Listening Before Speaking Helped Me Become a Better Leader

Like some of those leaders, I also liked to talk a lot early in my career when I owned my web development company, Continuum Interactive. I always had the answer before my client could finish telling me their challenges. And many times I was right.

But then I went to work at AOL, a big, diverse, successful, tech company (or content company).

img - aol logo

There was a lot of smart & creative people that worked there. And while I wasn’t intimidated, I was the new kid on the block and wanted to learn about the company and it’s history, values, strategy, and future.

I quickly learned the value of listening intentionally, where I utilized these practices:

  • Pay attention to who is talking (turn off phone, put computer away, etc.)
  • Withhold judgment
  • Reflect on what they said
  • Clarify their main points
  • Take notes, and summarize the main points
  • Share results (as necessary)
img - key active listening skills

I found the results of my own personal growth to be extraordinary:

  • I was more present during meetings and collaborations
  • I honed my ability to empathize with my team, customers, and stakeholders
  • My communication skills improved, where I could better articulate thoughts and ideas more clearly
  • I was able to confirm or improve my initial assumptions
  • I could more quickly refine and improve my ideas, leading to better strategies
  • My team trusted me more, and even confided personal matters with me
  • I built stronger friendships with colleagues and clients
  • I became a sounding board for ideas throughout the company

And through it all, I certainly became a better leader.

Being present. Empathizing. Having patience. Showing respect.

I helped my team to develop their own active listening skills, and throughout my career I have consistently promoted those who actively embraced this critical soft skill.

img - communication skills

And the benefits of active listening were transformative in my team’s behavior & output:

  • Better Insight – We gained more information and better insight because active listening motivates the speaker to elaborate in greater detail
  • Mutual Respect – When I focused on fully understanding the message of the speaker, it positively influenced the relationship with the team, and the team can build a trusting and ‘open’ environment based on mutual respect
  • Conflict Resolution – Active listening helped solved misunderstandings and prevent disputes
  • Better Customer-Focused Solutions – We also intentionally focused on enhancing our communication with our customers, where we discovered their pain points & needs, which in turn helped us to design & deliver better solutions that met their needs


The bottom line is that the best leaders in the world are the best listeners. They seek first to understand, not to be understood. To learn first, and teach second. To use empathy to gain insight into customer and team challenges.

Being present. Empathizing. Having patience. Showing respect.

quote - if youre not listening youre not learning

I owe this simple, yet extraordinary insight to my awesome Dad for all of his great advice over the years, but specifically learning how to listen intentionally. Happy Father’s Day!

Recommended Reading

Leave a Reply