By Jenni Marsh

Confident African American senior businesswoman discusses something with colleagues during weekly meeting.

When a beekeeper introduces a new queen to a queen-less honey bee hive, she does absolutely nothing. In fact, the best case scenario is she is introduced to the hive in a small cage large enough only for her and four or five workers. Her ability to move freely, interact and complete tasks is completely obstructed. The small teams of worker bees in the cage with the queen feed and care for her in the first 24-36 hours she is in the hive. During this time, her pheromones become familiar to the colony identifying her as their leader. Other workers are drawn to the cage to see and sense her leadership, but she is mostly still and assimilating to the hive. The workers eat through a candy plug in the cage during this time and after about 36 hours, she is released to be the leader of the hive and begin her work.

How great would it be if, as leaders, we were brought to our teams initially, and even periodically after that, with no access to work or direct activities and we were meant to simply listen? Too often we start each day telling our team members how to accomplish the goals we have for them. Or worse, we’re on autopilot, just existing but not actually engaged with the team in any way.


At The BB&T Leadership Institute, we help leaders understand the benefits of starting communication by listening. Listening first has three clear benefits: demonstrating caring toward the employee, ensuring understanding of the employee’s viewpoint and calming any negative emotion that may be present. Showing caring in this way builds trust and helps team members feel heard and understood.


Our communication model advises leaders to ask questions after listening. Questions demonstrate we’re interested in what speakers are saying. Asking questions also allows the listener to check their understanding of the intended message and gives the speaker an opportunity to clarify anything that may have been misunderstood. These questions may start with phrases like, “If I understand you correctly, you said ‘. . . .‘ Is this correct?” The speaker then has the opportunity to confirm the listener received the intended message correctly or clarify anything that was misunderstood. Whether the intended message is clear or needed clarification, asking questions tells the speaker the receiver is listening.

Another form of helpful questions is solution-focused, open-ended questions. These questions prompt the speaker to think about solutions rather than the listener providing them. When a listener responds with solution-focused, open-ended questions, the speaker gains increased insight and creates new thinking. Examples of solution-focused open-ended questions include questions like, “If you wanted to move this forward, what might the next step be?” or “What do you want to achieve here?”


Once we have taken the time to really listen, asked questions to clarify or prompt new thoughts, it’s time to “tell.” Telling allows the listener to give information or direction from an informed and unemotional place. Speakers will be more receptive to problem solving when they have reduced negative emotions. “Telling” as a leader may come in many forms: giving clear information, explaining consequences, directing others, delegating work and giving feedback are a few.

Following the Listen-Ask-Tell model of communication has endless benefits for the leader and the team. This process gives clear direction, provides accountability and creates clarity about what success looks like and how to make it happen. This process also helps build trust in relationships.

The honey bee colony is dependent on the successful work of the queen. Once she is acclimated and performing her daily work, she will lay up to 2,000 eggs each day, which for most queens will be well over a million eggs in their lifetime. She will have a group of worker bees that share her goals and perform very specific roles to get the work of the colony accomplished.

The queen accomplishes many impressive things in her lifetime, but she starts her role as leader of the colony and her relationship with her workers by listening.

About the Author

Jenni Marsh  MA, LPC, SPHR

Jenni Marsh MA, LPC, SPHR

Assistant Vice President, Senior Consultant The BB&T Leadership Institute

Jenni facilitates leadership development on-site programs, executive coaching and delivers custom consulting to internal and external clients. She is a graduate of The University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a master’s degree in Counseling and has been a Licensed Professional Counselor since 1996.