Want to be Part of a Government Dream Team? Listen.


Will Rogers, famous American actor, comedian and cowboy, once said, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” His advice is doubly true for aspiring government leaders, for whom listening skills are paramount.


Picture credit: https://twitter.com/alphabetsuccess/status/866775615382409216

We’ve said it before: Getting stuff done in government is a team sport. It requires motivated people with distinct skillsets to put aside personal priorities and work toward a single outcome. In basketball, you build a dream team – one that is great not (only) because it has the most talent,but because of how the team communicates. It’s the same in government.

To get anything done – whether its federal rulemaking or deciding what amenities to include in a new community park – government employees of all levels are expected to understand a huge variety of perspectives on a single issue, figure out what is in the public’s best interest, and then execute. This includes perspectives from within government (e.g. differing opinions from transport, planning, finance, environmental protection) but external stakeholders as well (e.g. differing opinions from small business, community groups, residents). Public servants have to bring together different stakeholders with very strong, divergent, opinions to solve a problem. They can’t bridge the gap between different stakeholders without being excellent listeners.

Research shows that good listening requires more than just staying quiet and providing some encouraging “mmm hmms.” Even though it’s a skill we all learn in kindergarten, there’s always room for improvement. That’s why Harvard Business Review writes about it so much. Just like in basketball, practice makes perfect. So here are some good reminders and practical tips you can start practicing today to improve your listening skills.

  • Create a safe environment. Yes, that means using non-verbal cues like encouraging nods and “mmm hmms” and clearing away distractions like phones and laptops. But it also means listening with your eyes as well as your ears. Observing non-verbal cues like body language and facial expressions make you more in tune with the emotional state of the person you’re listening to, which makes them feel safer to express their opinions. Our favorite book about using non-verbal cues to improve communication is Emotions Revealed, by Paul Ekman. Check it out!
  • Get more than just the facts. Most people think that if they walk away from a conversation knowing the facts, they’ll understand the idea. But generally, that’s not the case. In fact, research shows that we tend to forget from one-half to one-third of facts that we learn within eight hours. So instead of asking for just the facts, ask questions that clarify ideas and assumptions to reframe your own thinking.
  • Slow down. Did you know that we speak at about 125 words per minute, but our brain neurons only fire about 200 times a second? That’s partially why it’s so easy to get distracted, even when you’re trying really hard to listen. Experts suggest slowing down and speaking in short sentences, especially during difficult conversations. Others will match your pace.
  • Take effective notes. This last one is hard for me personally, but experts recommend you do it. One strategy used by Larry Bossidy when he was CEO of Honeywell was to draw a vertical line down the middle of his notebook. One the left side he’d write general notes, but on the right, he’d keep track of the most valuable nuggets or questions it made him think of to ask other people. It helped him listen intently and zero in on what’s most important. Try it out (and let me know if it works for you)!

Listening is key to good communication and key to good leadership. Dream team captains Magic Johnson and Larry Bird succeeded because they understood how to communicate and how to motivate. They succeeded because they listened to their coaches and teammates.

So whether you are the project manager for a new local initiative or the executive secretary of an interagency process, I encourage you to join me in practicing listening. Practice makes perfect, right? You just might be able to create your own government dream team.

Bonus material: Here are some of our favorite TED Talks about listening.

  • Quick but poignant talk by Julian Treasure with 5 exercises to help you listen better.
  • Funny (and fascinating) talk by Ernesto Sirolli on why not listening often leads to failure.

Elle Hempen is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Steve Martin

I like the idea of building a dream team of innovative thinkers to help with priority issues. In a previous job we did this and called it the “war room”.

Dawn DeFosses

very interesting article. Thank you for making me want to be more aware of how intently am I actually listening to someone.