Do You Want To Be A Leader? Learn To Listen Not Lecture

Twenty-five years ago a client asked me to meet with her president for an hour-long lunch. Her president was an industry innovator. She warned me, though, that her president was excruciatingly  introverted. She suggested I come prepared with a stockpile of stories to fill the conversational void.

The night before my visit, I talked with my father. He suggested a different plan.

admonishMy father said people like nothing more than to hear the sound of their own voice. Instead of telling amusing anecdotes, he suggested I ask questions.

The next day (at lunch with a reticent president) I asked question after question. The one-hour lunch stretched beyond two, and he talked almost non-stop. He waxed eloquent of his fly fishing hobby. He explored the mysteries of different fly rods. He told tales of the intricacy—and successes and failures—of tying fish flies.

After two and a half hours, he glanced at his watch, astonished. He was late for his weekly executive board meeting.

A board member later laughed about that board meeting. He said that the reclusive president practically bubbled with passion about our lunch. He wanted each executive to meet me. He said I was the greatest conversationalist he had ever met.

The thing was, I hadn’t told a story. Not one. I just asked questions.     

Helping someone find their voice

Within each person dwells an inner life. We mostly see their outer shell—their green eyes, their awkward conversations, their title, or their introverted or extroverted exterior.

But within that shell, lurking just beneath the surface, lives the real person.

Each inner self possesses a treasure trove of wisdom and experience that is longing to express itself; it observes and understands the world with a rich and unique perspective.

Inside every heart is an ache to be heard. But the world is a noisy place; iPods and iPhones—and headlines and headphones—saturate the stage and deafen our ears. There’s no room for another voice.

Every human has an inner voice that aches to be unleashed. We have inarticulate, unformed thoughts that are desperate for expression; there is something deep we wish to communicate, but we can’t find the words.

Until someone asks questions. Questions are the tools of the explorer; they are the treasure maps and flashlights of the heart hunter. By them we find the trails and tunnels into the inner life of another human heart.

Questions unlock that voice in another person. We give them a stage on which to speak. Questions lead to more questions, as a kind of “Encore, encore; we want to hear more.”

And something magical can happen

Every once in a while something magical happens—something perhaps divine. Our soul touches another soul. We encounter the real inner person.

During my lunch with the president, I asked why he liked tying tiny flies. He paused, as though I had asked him the meaning of life. Then he softly breathed, “I love the perfection, the tiniest of details; I simply love the craft of it.”

His eyes widened in wonder, “I’ve never said this to a soul before. Not even to my wife.”

He saw my own wide-eyed wonder. Somehow, in some way, something inarticulate from within him was expressed. While simple—tying fish flies—the shared experience of wonder connected us. He had found a voice, an ability to express an inner love.

Over the years

He and I began to meet a couple times a year for lunch. He told me of his first love, of getting married, of seeing his children born, of difficulties, and of successes.

He frequently marveled, “I’ve never said this before.” I shared his wonder at his own self-expression. Our hearts connected. Not every time, but often.

He began asking me questions. He grew curious about my curiosities. He became fascinated with skiing, while hating the cold. He took interest in my family, though he never met them. He marveled at computers, but he still used a typewriter.

The secret ingredient

Questions can give another person a voice, but they don’t always.

An often forgotten spiritual truth is we must have before we can give. We must be loved before we give love (1 John 4:19); we can only offer comfort with the comfort we’ve been given (2 Cor. 1:4).

[It’s an easy to ask questions for our own sake, to think, “My, what a profound question I just asked.” It’s easy to give in order to get. That is, we use others to find our own voice. The only way to really help others find their voice is to let someone else help us find our voice first.]

The president began asking me questions only after his voice had been heard.

The only sure way to find our voice is to let God ask us questions, and answer them back as he listens. Someone once suggested I take every question God asks in scripture, and answer it back to God. I began to make a list.

Attached is that PDF with questions that Jesus asks of others (and he asks of us). As I’ve answered them back to God, I’ve sensed his attention on me, almost his curiosity at my inner reflections. And when I finally get to the bottom of an issue, I sense his delight in my wonder.

I’ve connected with God, and it creates in me an almost wordless wonder.

Uh, any questions?


For more information about connecting with God through questions, read my latest book, Hearing God in Conversation. It is written with the idea of a personal, engagement, connection with God.

Hearing God is supposed to be normal. God himself longs for us to grow in intimacy with him; and the greatest way to know God is to learn to hear his voice.  Buy Now

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What do YOU think?

14 thoughts on “Do You Want To Be A Leader? Learn To Listen Not Lecture

  1. Thanks for this, Sam. Even though I’ve heard you tell this story before, it’s the last section that spoke to me. I’ve tried to learn from you how to listen instead of talk all the time, but recently I discovered that what I needed was patience and love for myself, because I have been in a phase of life when I was figuring out what was going on with me and healing and taking care of myself so that I can go out and give from a place of plenty and not lack. That has meant I needed to talk, and thank you for listening. Instead of trying to shut my mouth using self-control and listen more, I’ve recently allowed myself to express what I need to whenever the time is right and conditions safe (giving me a stage), and it has accelerated my healing and put me in a place where I can listen to others more, as I always wanted to, because I don’t have a constant internal monologue going trying to figure out what on earth is going on with me. Your listening helped me learn to put on my own oxygen mask first. I appreciate your example of listening. It both gave me a stage and helped me see how to listen when I’m ready and pass this on.

    • Hi Laura,

      Wow, thanks for all those wonderful things you say about me. For the rest of you: I’m not nearly as nice as Laura hints at. It’s just that Laura has great things to say, so it is very easy to be naturally interested.

      But I agree with you Laura, in this: we do need others to help us process. We have to say things out loud. (I heard someone once say, “If you don’t say it, it never happened.”) Talking out loud detangles our thoughts, and we really need that.

      We need a community of talkers and listeners, questioners and answer-ers.

      And we all need to be both; sometimes to talk and sometimes to listen.


  2. It is such a good reminder to invest time and affirm others by finding out what is important to them …. and not just think of ourselves and our world. And as you say just by asking questions…. Diane

  3. Sam,
    This is a holy posting. It reveals the depravity of our times…and that we are too busy with ourselves. I admit that I often live in a world of one. Thanks for the reminder that I need to return to the notion of listening with my ears instead of my mouth. I will bring this to the Father in prayer.
    As an aside, has anyone ever taught you how to tie a fly? I don’t know if you are interested, but I’d be happy to bring the goods necessary to show you at our upcoming Gathering retreat.

  4. Thank you – this was helpful & timely. I love what you said about questions “Questions are the tools of the explorer; they are the treasure maps and flashlights of the heart hunter. By them we find the trails and tunnels into the inner life of another human heart.” You reveal them as a wonderful & useful thing instead of a tool of rebellion that needs to be forbidden. I am in process of finding my “silenced” voice.

    • Danielle,

      I love your line, “I’m in the process of finding my ‘silenced’ voice.”

      I love it. Yes, God wants us to find our voice, because he has put his very self into us.

      Thank you so much for your sharing.


  5. Your “questioning” idea is great. It only works 100% of the time in my experience. Many people have come to the conclusion over time that what they think or believe does not count or isn’t important to others. In many cases, only through questioning and spending time in active listening, can you draw some of these people out. Often, when they finally begin to speak, they will learn much more about themselves than you will. Questioning and genuine interest can literally provide oxygen for many who are emotionally on life support. One caveat; if you are not truly interested, don’t ask. There is nothing more damaging than asking and not really caring to listen to the answer.

    • Hi Jim,

      I love your humor (“It only works 100% of the time”) and I love your great addition: “if you are not truly interested, don’t ask.”

      It really is fun to become curious in someone’s life, isn’t it? Both they (and us) have fun exploring and understanding more.

      Thanks for commenting,


  6. Thank you for this. So many things to consider here. But I think my absolute favorite is this: “The only sure way to find our voice is to let God ask us questions, and answer them back as he listens. Someone once suggested I take every question God asks in scripture, and answer it back to God. I began to make a list.”

    I just love, love, love this idea and cannot wait to begin a conversation with God based on these questions. Thank you for sharing them in a PDF.

    • Hi Judith,

      So glad this helped. And, believe me, it has helped me. It’s amazing, God asks questions, and he really listens.

      Enjoy your conversation with God. And tell us what you hear.