Trending Topics

Strategic listening is an essential skill for EMS leaders

Being a “good listener” is one of the best compliments a supervisor, chief or educator can receive

One of the greatest compliments our employees, co-workers or family can pay us is to say we are great listeners. At some level, we know the basic ingredient of great relationships is communication, and great communication grows from the seeds of listening. Yet few of us are known for our listening, perhaps because we believe that to lead or manage effectively is really about talking and being heard.

Watch Tom Peters’ three-minute video on listening.

“The single most important strategic strength that an organization can have is not a strategic plan but a commitment to strategic listening,” management guru Tom Peters declared in the video, more than 30 years after writing his ground-breaking book “In Search of Excellence.”

Make listening a top priority

Such a commitment to excellence begins with leaders who know how to listen and see listening as their top priority.

The kind of listening Peters is talking about is not the sort of listening managers or leaders often do. Rather, we engage in a performance staged to earn the right to speak. We think that if we practice a period of active listening - make eye contact, lean into the conversation, nod, ask open-ended questions, repeat back what people have said - we will have earned the right to speak.

Peters is talking about a creative sort of listening that is based on the recognition that deep listening is both magical and practical. When someone truly listens to us without judgment and assumption and with no agenda other than to understand, we experience a rare gift. The late essayist Brenda Ueland said, “When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.” But to be a good listener, you have to know how people talk.

I have found that people have two stages of telling. The first stage is the front-of-mind stuff: expressing current concerns, relaying events, offering complaints, assessing if the listener is waiting to judge, advise, inform or teach. If the teller becomes convinced the listener is truly listening, he or she moves to stage-two telling, in which he or she begins to open up, reveal more, and talk about ideas and possibilities. The teller experiences a powerful, satisfying sense of being heard—which in these times is a rare gift.

Have you ever noticed that the people you really enjoy being with - the ones who feel nutritious to be around and give you the sense that you can fully be yourself and do anything - are the ones with whom you get to stage-two telling very quickly?

This is why listening is so powerful. We respect those who really listen because they affirm our rightful place in the human community and create a connection that is beyond what we normally expect. When we create connections based on listening, they have strength and endurance and provide a flow of creative solutions that are generative not just to individuals but to organizations and communities.

Surround yourself with great listeners

To listen deeply requires time, quieting chatter in our own head and resisting our need to be heard. It requires listening to things we may have heard and listening to things that trigger our powerful need to defend our positions. This is why Peters believes such listening needs to be learned and practiced.

I’ve learned that the first step in being a good listener is to have great listeners in my life. These are busy people I respect who take the time to hear me without needing to agree, teach or convince. They simply value what I have to say and take the time to hear it. As I receive the gift, I want to give it to others.

This is an invitation to remember that old proverb that reminds: Who speaks, sows; who listens, reaps, and to add more listening to your work as a manager, service as a leader and responsibility as a friend and family member.

John Becknell, PhD, is a partner in the consulting firm SafeTech Solutions, LLP. John has been involved in emergency services for 40 years and writes and researches in the areas of leadership, culture, community and psychological wellbeing. He leads workshops, retreats and training programs for EMS, law enforcement and the fire service in living well, peer support and transforming the first responder experience into a path of growth, satisfaction and meaning. He is the author of Medic Life and numerous articles. John’s Masters and Doctoral degrees are in psychology with an emphasis on community psychology. Contact John at