Servant Leadership Workplace-Listen First

Listen First, Question Second

Listening is one of the most distinctive practices – maybe the single most distinctive practice – of servant leadership.

Not far behind listening is another distinctive servant leadership practice: questioning.*

But the two practices – listening and questioning – are not created equal. At least not chronologically.

Servant-leaders listen first, question second.

Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term “servant leadership” in his important 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, emphasized the primacy of listening:

“Only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first.”

In short, then, questioning comes best after listening.

Julian Treasure, author of Sound Business and host of a wonderful TED talk, “5 ways to listen better”** would agree. He uses the acronym “RASA” – also the Sanskrit word for “essence” – to give guidance on good listening in conversation with another person:

R – Receive the words the were said (paying attention, being fully present)

A – Appreciate the words that were said (nodding, saying “yes” and the like)

S – Summarize what was said (repeating back for clarity; the word “so” helps)

A – Ask questions (afterwards)

It would be a mistake jumping to the A (Ask) before all the R (Receiving) is done.

Indeed, questioning is often an exercise of power. We have probably seen how questions can be a weapon of attack. They can make people defensive and do more harm than good to a conversation.

So, while I believe listening and questioning are two distinctive servant leadership practices, I also believe it is important for them to be practiced in right order.

Do you agree? What are we missing here? What would you add?

Let us know.

As always, we appreciate your views.


And don’t forget to download our latest ebook, Servant Leadership in the Workplace: A Brief Introduction. It’s free!


* Maybe you will enjoy two of our recent blog posts:  “15 Great Quotes About Listening” and “15 Great Quotes About Questioning”

** Julian Treasure TED talk: “5 ways to listen better”.