Leadership and the Mathematical Equation of Listening

Many years ago, I participated in a workshop where the workshop facilitator read out loud the poem “My Country” by Dorothea Mackellar. Before he did so, he asked the group to pay attention to their thoughts while he read the poem. When he had finished reading, he asked everyone to share their thoughts. As he went around the room, the thoughts varied. Some people spoke in detail of coloured landscapes, some spoke of the challenges of living in such a vast country. There were people who associated the poem with their move to Australia from another country, talking about the gratitude that they associated with that move. One person mentioned that it reminded them of their year 5 teacher, who had been the first person to read the poem to them. Another mentioned that they didn’t like the poem at all because it reminded them of school.

I recall being fascinated by the vast array of responses. The same person had read the same poem at the same time to everyone in the workshop, and yet no two people had achieved the same meaning. How could this even be possible?

As I reflected on this, I formed the opinion that this is quite a common occurrence. I can recall meetings that I have attended where it felt as though everyone had a shared understanding of what had been discussed and then, right at the end of the meeting (or even afterwards), it became apparent that different people had completely different (and sometimes completely opposite) understandings.

So, why does this happen?

The Maths of Listening

When we speak to others, we often assume that we have a shared understanding of what is being said, that what we are saying must be what the listener is hearing. However, if as demonstrated above, multiple people can take different meaning from the same conversation, then perhaps that meaning is coming from the listener, and not from the speaker. This in turn suggests that listening is more than hearing. If different people can take different meaning from the same conversation, then listening must also involve interpretation. So, if we think of listening as a mathematical equation, we have something like the following:

Listening = Hearing + Interpretation

That is, we hear the words, we interpret their meaning, and this becomes our listening of the conversation.

Why do we all Listen Differently?

Every participant in a conversation brings with them different things that are important to them (concerns), different emotional spaces, different learning, and different internal thoughts. Each person will listen to the conversation based on what is important to them, what they have learnt from similar situations in the past, what they have learnt from their culture and upbringing, and what is being made available to them by the emotional spaces from which they are operating. For example:

  • Someone who is operating from anxiety may interpret a conversation very differently to someone who is operating from enthusiasm.
  • A manager who feels that that their authority is not being respected may react very differently in a particular situation to someone who is feeling safe about their authority.
  • An employee who wants to be valued as a team member may react differently when their manager cancels meetings multiple times in succession to someone who feels that avoiding meetings is more important than being valued as an employee.

And so, the meaning of the words that we speak ultimately comes from the listener, and not the speaker.

How can we use the Maths of Listening in Leadership?

In every conversation, every listener is applying their own interpretations in order to create their own meaning of the message that is being spoken. As leaders, we are creating meaning from the messages that others speak. We are also speaking messages from which others then create meaning.

Creating Meaning From Words That are Spoken to Us

So how do we create meaning from what others say to us?

We may not realise it, however when we are involved in conversations, we are simultaneously having our own internal conversation. This internal chatter informs our interpretations and actions, thus creating the reality of our relationships with others. If we have no awareness of this chatter, we have no awareness of the reality that we are creating. The following exercise, I think, demonstrates this:

  1. Imagine someone who has been at your organisation for 15 years, is very well respected and whom you trust immensely. Imagine that person telling you that there is a major flaw in a significant process and it was going to take months and many dollars to fix. What are you saying to yourself as they speak? What interpretations are you likely to make from what they are telling you? What actions are you going to take as a result of this interaction? Who else are you likely to consult?
  2. Now imagine someone who has been at the organisation for three weeks, who you have met once and with whom you have not had the chance to develop a trusting working relationship. Imagine that person telling you exactly the same as what the person in point 1 above told you. What are you saying to yourself as they speak? What interpretations are you likely to make from what they are telling you? What actions are you going to take as a result of this interaction? Who else are you likely to consult?

How different were your visualised outcomes in each of the above two situations? When I completed this exercise myself, my visualised outcomes were very different. In each situation, I imagined myself operating from different emotions, taking different next steps, and even involving different people in my steps. I created different realities based on my interpretations of each situation, yet I was delivered exactly the same message in each case.

This is perhaps quite understandable. However, if we aren’t taking notice of how we are listening to people and why we are interpreting them in the way in which we are interpreting them, then we are potentially reducing our choices for action. For example, if the new person notices us reacting differently to their advice than we do to someone else’s, what impact might this have on them? If we know that we are reacting differently in each case, we may choose to have a conversation with the new person so that we can reassure them, or we may choose to change how we are reacting. We can’t do that if we don’t know.

Speaking the Messages From Which Others are Creating Meaning

When humans listen, we are listening from a foundation of what might be important to us. We then use that foundation to interpret the message and create meaning.

As leaders, I think it is important to understand the potential concerns of the people with whom we are interacting, and tailor our messages so that it speaks to those concerns. For example, if it is important to a team member that people respect and value their contribution, then they may react differently if their latest document was unexpectedly changed without consultation than what they would if they were consulted on the changes. In the first case, they may not not feel as though their concerns around being respected and valued were being addressed. From here, they would then potentially take action that may lead us to creating a reality where that person is considered difficult.

If, however, the individual’s efforts were acknowledged and they were consulted regarding the suggestion of changes, they might feel as though their concerns around being respected and valued were being addressed. They might even welcome the feedback and offer suggestions for more changes themselves. We may even go on to create a reality where we think this person is incredibly open to feedback and easy to work with. Two different outcomes, and the only thing that changed was the way in which the leader addressed the concerns of the individual.

In Summary

As leaders, it is important for us to understand how we listen to those around us, and to be aware that our listening of others can and will inform outcomes. This, I think, has the potential to be incredibly powerful.

Similarly, we often tend to forget that people make meaning from our words. Instead, we assume that they heard the words exactly as intended. If we maintain an awareness that this is not the case, and we tailor our speaking so that the concerns of others are taken care of, we have the potential to significantly improve the quality of our interactions.

Listening = Hearing + Interpretation

The mathematical equation of listening offers a different approach to listening and opens us up to understanding why the meaning made from the message ultimately sits with the listener. If we can be aware of how we are speaking to and interpreting those around us, then we have the potential to create something incredibly powerful from our leadership.

Some Time to Reflect

Think about someone who you may be considering as difficult to lead.

  • How have you been listening in your interactions with and about them?
  • How has this been useful?
  • What might you change in your listening of them that might help to improve the quality of your interactions with them?
  • What do you think is important to them (ie what are their concerns)?
  • How were you speaking to their concerns?
  • How might you speak differently to address their concerns?


  1. If you would like to listen to “My Country”, and also view some further comments around this listening exercise, then feel free to visit this post on my personal blog site.
  2. This article is based on the work of Alan Sieler from The Newfield Institute. In particular, refer to: Sieler, A. (2007). Coaching to the Human Soul Volume 1. Blackburn, Vic.: Newfield Australia.

Let me know your thoughts!

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