Nov 062016 2 Responses

One Habit Killing Your Leadership

We are prone to binary listening. Nuance is lost. Complexity is overlooked. Everything is either/or. Whenever we hear something, we immediately consider “Am I for this or against it.” If I agree with something, I assume the source of the information is knowledgeable, wise, and good-hearted. If I disagree with something, I assume the source is ignorant, foolish, and evil. Every communication is viewed through this lens.

Binary listening is normal, but it’s destructive. (See: How to Make Your Wife Feel Heard)

Good leaders must reject binary listening. Even when everyone else does it. Even when it happen so naturally. Even when it seems harmless. Binary listening creates bad leadership.

When we quickly judge something as right or wrong, we unknowingly taint everything we hear. Our judgment biases the way we take in information. We begin to listen in order to confirm our opinion.

Binary listening changes hearing from a cognitive exercise to an emotional one. Instead of trying to process information and understand the content of what the person is saying, we begin to experience positive or negative feelings about the person.

When we listen with a for or against, like or dislike approach, here is what happens:

1. We begin to receive information–Read a social media comment, listen to a co-worker’s report.

2. We make a decision–Do I like this or dislike it? Am I for it or against it?

3. We allow that decision to dictate our feelings for the person–If we are for the idea then we are for the person. If we are against the idea then we are against the person.

4. We filter everything through our preconceived notions–Supporting evidence is highlighted; contradictory evidence is downplayed.

5. We end the interaction more convinced about our own ideas and unified with those with whom we agree and separated from who those we disagree.

Notice, at no point in this process do we truly seek to understand opposing views, question preconceived notions, or consider the possibility that our viewpoint is wrong.

Consider a better way:

1. We begin to receive information.

2. We refrain from judgment and seek to understand the information.

3. We ask questions, seek clarification, and process the details.

4. We find common ground, put differences in context, and make a decision.

5. We end the conversation in a closer bond with the person appreciating their perspective even if we don’t agree with their position.

The problem with binary listening is that it’s not really listening. It has the appearance of an exchange of ideas and information, but in binary listening my will is not engaged. In true listening, I’m trying to understand and am open to change based on what you say. In binary listening, I’m giving the appearance of openness, but I’m just using you to verify my ideas. (See: This Is When to Talk to Your Kids)


  • If your boss is a binary listener, she isn’t really moved by your suggestion.
  • If your husband is a binary listener, he isn’t really hearing your heart.
  • If your friend on Facebook is a binary listener, they are judging you by everything you post.

But if we will stop listening in binary terms, we can not only lead better, but also love in a more effective way. By delaying judgment and truly listening with an open mind and heart, we will:

  • better understand others
  • find more areas of common ground
  • have appreciation of differences
  • understand the perspectives of others
  • make decisions from better educated viewpoints
  • give and receive more respect
  • problem solve better
  • experience more compassion for others
  • have a more diverse pool of understanding

Good leaders listen differently than the rest of us. While we are quick to make a judgment and then view every communication through that judgment, good leaders approach listening differently. Instead of deciding if they are for or against something, they try to learn from every communication. No matter how great the disagreement, they search for areas or ideas which they have not considered and allow themselves to be influenced by others.


2 Responses to One Habit Killing Your Leadership
  1. […] When a relationship is broken, individuals stop listening to one another. They might still hear each...
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