On his 27th birthday, John Francis, an environmental activist who loved to argue, decided to be quiet for one day and listen to others. The result changed his life. What he learned on his day of silence was that he hadn’t really been listening at all. “I would listen just enough to hear what people had to say and think that I knew what they were going to say, and so I would stop listening,” he said in a speech not long ago. “And in my mind I just kind of raced ahead and thought about what I was going to say back while they were still finishing up. And then I would launch in. Well, that just ended communications.”

At the end of his birthday, he decided to be quiet for another day. And another. And then for an entire year. In all, John Francis remained voluntarily silent for 17 years, during which time he earned three college degrees (including a doctorate), taught classes using sign language, and walked across America. And he listened, really listened, to the people he met. (If you want to know more about Francis’ amazing story, you can hear it – yes, he speaks now – by viewing one of his presentations online.

I doubt I could manage even a day of silence, nevertheless years. Perhaps you couldn’t either. But you don’t have to be silent to listen more effectively. And it’s a skill worth learning, maybe the single best thing you could do to make yourself a better leader.

Why? Start with the obvious: You can’t be a leader unless you have followers, and you can’t gain followers if you don’t understand them well enough to represent them. This involves listening. If you want to be effective as a leader, you’ll have to be more than a mouthpiece for a group: You’ll have to negotiate for your followers, and effective negotiating means knowing how leaders of other groups think about things. Finally, leadership means sometimes having to change your followers, as when circumstances shift dramatically and your group has to adapt. To do any of this involves listening deeply – truly taking in others’ fears, hopes, vision and motivations – before acting.

There are other reasons listening can make you a better leader: You’ll arrive at better solutions because you’ll have more complete information. Your ideas will gain greater support if you’ve developed them after consulting others. You’ll make fewer gaffes if you know others’ sensitivities. Finally, you’ll enjoy one of the greatest benefits of civic leadership, which is to learn about people who are different from you in background, temperament and world view.

And it all begins with listening. So how can you improve your listening skills? Here are some ways:

  • Start by concentrating. This sounds simple but isn’t. The greatest obstacle to listening is distraction. Instead of paying attention to others, we let our minds wander – to what else we need to do, whom we need to see, what we’ll say next, and a hundred other things. So begin your meetings with a reminder: Stay focused on the other person’s words.
  • Ask open-ended questions that require explanations rather than closed-ended questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” So you might ask, “How did you feel?” rather than “Were you angry?” because it offers a fuller understanding of the person. And keep your questions brief. The simpler the question, the more detailed and candid the responses tend to be.
  • Listen for insights into the person. People often say a lot more than they intend or we expect them to say; as a result, we don’t always take in what they’re telling us. Your meetings may be about a community issue, but if you ask good questions and listen carefully, you can learn a lot about the person who’s talking. You can not only get her opinions, you can get her life story and motivations, how she forms opinions and reads people. These things can be critically important later on as you work with this person. So listen for these deeper insights.
  • Take time. It takes a while to understand people, and the longer you spend, the more you learn. Don’t expect to learn someone’s life story, philosophy and motivations in 30 minutes’ time. Plan on an hour or more, which is why lunch can be a good time for such meetings.
  • Make it comfortable. Here’s another reason to consider lunch as a good setting for listening: It gets the person out of her office and away from her desk. Simply moving to neutral ground will sometimes open up conversations, particularly if the person has reason to see you as a potential adversary. But be careful: Chose quiet restaurants where you won’t be rushed, and think of places where the other person might feel comfortable.
  • Make eye contact. It seems like a small thing, but looking a person in the eye builds trust and comfort. And for you to listen deeply, you need people to trust you and feel comfortable sharing their hopes and fears.
  • If they attack you or your group, don’t be defensive. Ask the person why they feel that way. Keep in mind that every civic leader comes under attack from time to time, sometimes unfairly. If you meet anger with defensiveness, it deepens the antagonism. But if you seek to understand the anger, it diffuses it – and may win you grudging admiration. It’s something good salespeople know: When the customer attacks, don’t defend; probe.

At some point, though, we must move from listening to acting, right? Of course, but as international mediator Mark Gerzon says in his book “Leading Through Conflict,” we don’t suffer in American life from too much listening (which Gerzon calls “inquiry leadership”). We suffer from too little listening and understanding. Here’s Gerzon’s advice about when to move from inquiry to advocacy:

The general rule is this: inquiry precedes advocacy. If you (1) are uncertain about having reliable, complete information; (2) have not yet engaged all the relevant stakeholders; and (3) doubt that you will have sufficient votes, power, or other support to put your plan in action, then it is time for inquiry, not advocacy. However, if you (1) have access to all the necessary information, (2) have obtained input from all the necessary people, and (3) have mapped a clear road to implementing a viable plan, then go ahead. Advocate your “solution” to the issue or conflict, and begin to rally everyone behind you.

In other words, until you understand an issue from all sides, have a clear plan, and enjoy broad support, listen up.