Interpersonal relationships challenge nonprofit chief executives especially because so much is at stake. Merger partners, board chairs, direct reports managing huge programs—getting relationships with these people right means winning, while getting them wrong means losing.

Fortunately, listening’s a simple skill you’ve been developing all your life that makes interpersonal relationship wins easier and repeatable. Focused listening practice yields resounding success. (See what I did there?)

Nonprofit chief executives spend a tiny fraction of their time giving huge public speeches. Instead, leadership happens moment by moment, person by person, both through words and deeds. There are hundreds of moments like these every day—and most involve the opportunity to listen well, or listen poorly. It’s your choice, but choose wisely, because each moment sends messages that can ripple throughout the organization, with impact you may or may not intend.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” wrote Stephen R. Covey. But executive leaders have plenty of opportunity to practice listening, in meeting after meeting. (After meeting, after meeting … I need an espresso just thinking about it.) The type of listening for which you’re aiming is listening to understand, or Covey’s 5th Habit: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.”

Listening to understand is a type of purposeful listening. Executive coach Andrew Neitlich lists several more types in his book Elegant Leadership: Simple Strategies, Remarkable Results

  1. “Listen to listen, without fixing, judging or interrupting. This type of listening can be effective at almost any time. It builds relationships, leads to deeper understanding, and lets people be heard.”
  2. “Listen to understand the other person’s interests, commitments, and aspirations. This type of listening helps a leader develop a mutually beneficial solution with another person. It also helps to understand somebody’s reasons for resisting, complaining, or doubting an idea. For instance, ‘Joe, if I have heard you right, you’re not complaining about this idea. You’re just saying that you are committed to quality. Anything we do has to improve or maintain current levels of quality. Right?'”
  3. “Listen for the other person’s talents and interests. Listening for talents and interests allows a leader to point people in a direction that will engage and excite them. It also focuses on other people’s unique gifts. For instance, ‘Mary, you’re telling me that you enjoy meeting people, and are pretty good at convincing people to make an appointment with you. I agree. What would be a way for the organization to take advantage of these talents…?'”
  4. “Listen for an opportunity to move things forward. Elegant leaders are brilliant at listening for ways to move things forward. When people keep talking about exciting visions and possibilities, elegant leaders ask them to commit to specific actions and accountability. When people seem stuck collecting and analyzing data, elegant leaders challenge them to make a recommendation. When people make commitments, but encounter hurdles and give up, elegant leaders encourage them to persist. When people identify problems, elegant leaders ask them to take responsibility for solving their problems.

Here’s an illustration from the nonprofit boardroom, a common listening opportunity for chief executives.

“People want to be authentically listened to. We try to do that,” says Mike Parks, CEO of The Dayton Foundation—one of the United States’ largest community foundations. He’s formed a strong leadership partnership with his board chair, community volunteer Ellen Ireland, by listening for what she wants to contribute.

Ireland volunteers her time as board chair, Parks says,

because she’s trying to make a difference and wants to feel like her opinion, and thoughts, and suggestions are contributing and making a difference. You’ve got to ask for, respect, and do that.

We’ve all been on boards where you think you have something to contribute and you know you’re just getting ignored or blown off. And that’s just the worst feeling in the world. You’re here because you’re trying to say, “Maybe I have a little something to add,” and if you’re not really authentically listened to, and if the CEO doesn’t capture that and do something with that, it’s a real problem. Otherwise, people are going to say, “Well, it doesn’t really matter what I think.”

Ireland listens in return, Parks said.

I’ll have crazy ideas and sometimes she’ll say, “Mike, why don’t we put that one on the back burner for now?” But at least I feel like I’ve been listened to and on a very personal level, that’s critical. Good or bad, because it’s not like everything I say Ellen says, “Well, let’s go do it.” We both have crazy ideas.

Let’s stay in Dayton for another example. (Because who wouldn’t want to? You’ve got Dayton to thank for powered flight, the eponymous Peace Accords, and cash registers. Ding!)

Fred Bartenstein coached dozens of nonprofit chief executives in a consulting career after leaving his CEO role at The Dayton Foundation. I asked him to describe the ideal board chair, based on his experience and that of his clients. You can readily adapt his insights to assess how you’re showing up to others as an ideal leadership partner.

I think the first quality I would look for is somebody who listens. The worst board chairs—board chairs that will kill your organization and you—are people that don’t listen. Who are working their own agenda without empathy or awareness for what else is going on and what other people are thinking.

Somebody who’s a good listener is probably going to be pretty good at working with human beings as a facilitative leader.

(The Parks, Ireland, and Bartenstein quotations above are from my book Better Together: How Top Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs Get Happy, Fall in Love, and Change Their World.)

Would you like to get excellent at the skill of listening, so you and your leadership partners win more? Here’s one way to start: Watch Stephen Covey talk about empathetic listening—listening until the other person feels understood—in this three-minute video: (Power tip: Learn from YouTube in half the time by clicking the Settings icon—looks like a gear—and setting the speed to 2.)