Leadership lessons from Confucius: deep listening

Temple of Yan Hui: deep listening

Confucius said: “I can talk to Yan Hui all day without him ever arguing with me, as if he is slow. But when I observe how he behaves in private after he’s retired from my presence, I can see that he’s learned everything I’ve taught him. Indeed, Hui isn’t slow at all.” (1)

When was the last time you really listened to someone speak without sneaking a surreptitious glance at your smart phone or even just around the room? Think carefully before you give an answer. By “really listened” I mean that you gave them your full and undivided attention – not just taking in every word they said but also observing the expressions that appeared on their faces and the movements their bodies made?

With so many distractions around us, deep listening is very a difficult skill to nurture. But it’s also an indispensable one for a leader. By genuinely listening to what someone has to say you increase their confidence and make them feel much more comfortable about opening up to you. By the same token, you have a much better chance of gauging their true emotions through their tone of voice, posture, and actions than if you simply hear their words.

Best of all, you have a much better chance of absorbing what the person was telling you and, like Confucius’s favorite follower Yan Hui, following up on what you have learned from it.

We all like to complain about having to attend too many boring and pointless meetings (let’s not even get started on the subject of conference calls!), but the truth is that one of the main reasons for them being so unproductive is that we don’t participate in them fully by making the effort to give our complete attention to what other people have to say.

The next time you have to drag yourself off to a meeting, why not put away your smart phone, sew your lips together, and engage in a spot of deep listening? The results might surprise you – hopefully in a positive way.


This article features a translation of Chapter 9 of Book 2 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.

(1) This chapter marks the first appearance of Confucius’ protégé Yan Hui. You can read more about him here.

I took this image at the delightful Temple of Yan Hui in Qufu. It’s only a half-hour walk from the Temple of Confucius and well worth a visit. You can read more about this here.

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