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Listen Up! Listening Skills for Leadership

Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most important and may be the least understood. To listen well:

Seek first to understand. Most people naturally listen through the filter of their own experience, needs and agenda.  Listening to understand (empathic listening) is very different from listening with the intent to reply or rebut. It means getting fully inside someone else’s frame of reference to experience their reality and point of view.

Be fully present. Focus all your attention on the other person, anticipating and minimizing possible distractions.  As best-selling author M. Scott Peck observes: “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” Being fully present is a rare gift that signals respect and care.

Withhold advice unless asked. When it comes to effective listening, the best advice you can give is no advice. As soon as you begin to advise, you are coming from your own frame of reference, not the speaker’s.

Be available. Great leaders go where their people are to observe, ask questions and solicit opinions and ideas. They understand that listening encourages people to bring things to the table and problem-solve independently.

Acknowledge the speaker. Acknowledgement can take the form of a head nod, “I see,” or “Tell me more.” It indicates that you’re paying attention and opens the pathway for deepened communication.

Confirm and clarify. When the speaker pauses, check to be sure you’ve heard and interpreted correctly. Paraphrase or restate what the speaker said. “What I hear you saying is______. Is that right?”

Be open to learning. The point of listening is to gain knowledge, insights and new perspectives.  If your lips are moving, you aren’t learning a thing!

Notice what isn’t being said. A good listener hears what’s said as well as what’s not being said. Observe signals like body language and eye contact. Listening with a global focus takes in the energy and underlying currents between individuals, yielding useful information that may not be verbally disclosed. Trust your intuition, name what you’re sensing, and give yourself permission to be curious about it.  As an example: “Terry, I sense you’re not ready to move ahead with this initiative. What’s holding you back?”

Keep your internal dialogue in check. How many times have you been in a discussion and found your mind wandering, leaping to conclusions, filtering, judging, becoming defensive or rehearsing a response? Mental chatter is a common block to effective listening.

Don’t interrupt. Effective listening requires self-discipline. Think of someone who treats listening like a win-lose proposition and discussion like a verbal jousting match, frequently cutting in to make a point. What’s it like to interact with an interrupter? What is the impact? Interrupting suggests impatience at best and contempt at worst.

The quality of a leader’s listening affects the quality of workplace relationships as well as the culture and performance of the organization.  What behaviors detract from your listening? Start noticing your listening today.

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