Listening with the Grain

This Week’s Thought

Great leaders listen with the grain of a conversation. Their intent is to understand and learn from others, not to merely confirm what the leader already believes or to deliver a pre-determined response.


This past weekend, I attended a talk given by English poet, pastor, and academic Dr. Malcolm Guite. He is an intriguing character possessing a potent combination: singer-songwriter, poet, and author.

Malcolm’s expertise includes a deep knowledge of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which is of little surprise as his appearance reminded me of a Middle-earth resident from Tolkien’s fantasy writings. His long white hair, full beard, and pattern of speech would make him the perfect resident in Bilbo Baggins’ neighborhood.

At one point, Malcolm discussed how people should approach reading stories, poetry, or other text. Using a concept that is familiar to woodworkers, he said that when approaching the written word, a reader should go with, not against, the grain.

Malcolm explained that when someone reads against the grain of the text, they focus not on learning the writer’s perspective but on confirming what the reader already believes to be true about the author, the message, or both. Against the grain readers stop reading when their beliefs are confirmed. Proclaiming, “Aha, I knew it!”

Going against the grain is very different from going with the grain of the text. The former wrestles with the text to support what they already believe, but the latter allows the text to stretch thinking, challenge biases, or reshape perspective.

The idea of going with or against the grain offers a powerful leadership lesson for all of us when it comes to listening to people.

Leaders often ask people questions and go against the grain of their answers. These leaders latch on to responses that confirm what they already believe about people and situations. They aren’t listening to understand but to confirm or respond.

Great leaders approach conversations differently. They go with the grain of team member answers by listening to understand situations, remaining open to new information, or reframing their own thinking. Listening with the grain takes time, practice, openness, and confidence. These are investments that every leader should make.

This week’s tool and video provide you the opportunity to reflect on a conversation where you practiced against-the-grain listening. You weren’t trying to understand but to confirm suspicions or merely respond to the team member. Take time to fill out the form by identifying a past incident when you listened against the grain. Ask yourself what caused you to go against the grain, listening to confirm or respond. Then, identify what you can do differently in the future.

My podcast conversation this week was with futurist and author Ross Dawson. It was such a timely discussion for today’s newsletter as Ross talks about his new book, Thriving on Overload, and how we can better handle information by practicing five powers for success in a world of exponential information. I’m confident that the framework Ross shares in the podcast interview and the book will help all of us to listen with the grain.

This Week’s Questions

  1. When was the last time you listened against the grain? Describe what transpired.
  2. What caused you to listen against the grain?
  3. What can you do differently in the future?

This Week’s Challenge

The next time you ask someone a question, set aside your biases, assumptions, and desire to respond. Work to truly understand their answer and perspective. Share with them what you heard to confirm your understanding.

Listening with the Grain Worksheet

Episode 159: Thrive on Overload with Futurist Ross Dawson