The Intangible Elements of Leadership: The Art of Listening

December 6, 2016

The Intangible Elements of Leadership -- Part 1: The Art of Listening

Part 1: The Art of Listening

Working in an outdoor environment our role as leaders often incorporates technical or, “hard” skills, and people, or “soft” skills. The technical skills are tangible elements: How to tie a bowline, how to execute a forward stroke, how to set up a tent, and there are a lot of teaching tools available to us to grow our knowledge and improve our skills as leaders, instructors and mentors.

People or “soft” skills, are a more elusive component of leadership. Even the terminology proves elusive as I have yet to encounter a phrase which adequately encompasses the scope and complexity involved with these skills. Over the next few months, I hope this blog can explore the different aspects of these less tangible elements of leadership.

First up: the art of listening. How would you define the word listen? The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides us with these three definitions:

  1. To pay attention to sound;
  2. To hear something with thoughtful attention; give consideration; and
  3. To be alert to catch an unexpected sound
[Source: “Listen.” Def. 1-3. Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2016. 28 Nov. 2016.]

Reflect on an experience you’ve had as an outdoor leader. Are words (i.e., sounds) the only method you’ve used to “listen” to a participant?

Let’s look at a brief example: It is day 3 of a backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. You are leaving the summit of a 4000-ft. peak and descending via a well-maintained trail. It’s early June, with temps in the mid-40s. The day is overcast, with winds of 10-15 mph. Your group has been hiking for about 4-5 hours and they had a lunch break about 45 minutes ago. Within the group, you have a broad demographic of age, gender and outdoor experience. One of your participants, who has been fairly out-going, is quiet on the descent and has placed herself toward the back of the group. You drop into the sweep position to check in with her as the group continues its hike.

When asked, the participant replies “I’m fine” in a monotone voice. You’ve already noted she is quieter than normal. You also note she stays a bit apart from the group when you stop for short snack and/or water breaks. Her posture is a bit stooped, she occasionally wipes a tear away from her cheek, and she isn’t engaging in the general on-trail chatter of the group.

Let’s re-phrase the earlier question: As a leader, how are you listening to this participant? What clues are you gathering which might contradict the participant’s “I’m fine” statement? Can you think of other examples, from your experiences, which might indicate how you use all your senses when “listening” to your participants and/or your co-leaders?

I’d encourage us all, as leaders, whether we work in the outdoors or elsewhere, to consider how we perceive, interpret and use a range of cues to determine how individuals, and group, are doing. We delve into that some more in “The Intangible of Leadership – Part 2: Communication.”

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Kristi Hobson Edmonston

Kristi Hobson Edmonston is the Leadership Training Instructor at the Appalachian Mountain Club.