The musicians of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra were once asked to name the most effective conductor. Arturo Toscanini won, hands down. When asked why, one of the instrumentalists said, "He could anticipate when you were about to make a mistake and keep you from making it."
He had discernment.
Discernment, like musical talent, is innate, but it's not like the gift of perfect pitch. The gift of discernment can be taught, practiced, and developed.
I have known many excellent leaders who were not given the gift of discernment. They could not read people. They read figures. They excelled in science, engineering, mathematics, and administration. They depended on management skills and organization.
Those blessed with even a little discernment, however, could develop significant sensitivity and intuition. I am one of those, having used discernment for many years both in manufacturing (overseeing 2,500 employees) and in ministry (chairing several national ministries).
If I could read my people correctly, I could make the most of their productivity and minimize their mistakes.
Catching what others miss
Words are the windows to the mind. Socrates said, "Speak, young man, that I might know you." Productive listening is active and intense. It is hearing more than words. Most of the time we get a general concept of what people are saying, just enough to maintain conversation.
Using our discernment to lead requires much more.
First, make sure you understand the meaning of words, both dictionary and colloquial. Slang is part of colloquial listening. For example, when young people say "bad" or "nasty," they many times mean "exceptionally good." And if you're unsure about a meaning, ask. I have never known a really intelligent person who will let you use a word they don't know without stopping you to ask its meaning. The meaning is crucial to the understanding.
Next, listen to the selection of words. Word choice discloses several things, including a person's reasoning ability, his prejudices (using pejorative words), and desire to impress (inappropriate use of large words). Words give clues whether a person is primarily intellectual or emotional. Individuals with precise minds use precise language. Often, sensitive people use poetic words.
You can often determine whether individuals think in principles or techniques. Can they explain things several ways? How broadly do they illustrate? If a person illustrates from many different areas, he can see a similar principle running through the different experiences.
The use of words and accents also gives us a glimpse into someone's past. Buddy Rich, the drummer, told me that he could hear a player's history when he played jazz. He knew whom he had been listening to, whom he idolized, generally what part of the country he came from, and whether he had a religious background.
People who have a public vocabulary different from their private one sometimes let a private word slip into the public expression, and that opens a window into the person's thought process.
Then notice the manipulation of words. Does a person put a "spin" on descriptions of people or events? For instance, those who use diplomatic language ordinarily want to avoid offending anyone, which to a discerning leader means you're probably not getting the whole story.
Hear what they don't say
Once our top salesman became an alcoholic. We worked to scrape him off the bottom and get him back sober and on top. As he and I walked into a sales meeting, he lingered a moment and said, "This help I'm getting is going to keep me from drinking, isn't it?"