6 ways that listening can help you become a better leader

Last week, I spent some time in an organisation with their executive team attending different meetings and discussions which gave me the opportunity to observe them in action with a range of people and situations.

As the week progressed it became evident that there was a common thread running through my observations. There seem to be a lot of talking and not enough listening. The senior team were:

  • Doing most of the talking
  • Leading and taking over the conversation
  • Interrupting the other person’s flow
  • Not picking up on non verbal and body language cues
  • Not demonstrating that they are listening

I began to wonder if this was a culture thing where it has become the norm to act this way? Can an organisation have a culture of not listening?


Listening skills are fundamental in leadership because…

  • By listening to your staff it demonstrates that they matter, that you value what they say and that they have a voice which is heard. Your staff will be more willing to share ideas and give feedback if they believe that their opinions are valued and respected
  • It shows that you care about what is being said and this helps to develop trust and rapport and  better relationships and connectedness
  • It creates opportunity for learning. Good ideas, innovations and knowledge and can come from those who are at the coalface
  • Allows you to understand your employees’ perspectives

In my role as a coach, my listening skills are well honed as it is crucial to my practice. But this has not always been the case.

I still have in my possession one of my earlier school reports with the comment,‘ Vera’s grades would improve greatly if she did less talking and more work’.

The major communication skills include reading, writing, speaking and listening. We learn to speak at an early age and at school we are taught to read and write. But what about listening? Who has ever taken a course on listening?

Most of us when we are in conversation, listen with the intent to response. As the other person is speaking, we are thinking about our response to what is being said. We are filtering what is being said through our own lens and our own paradigm. How many times have you heard someone tell a story, and another person would chime in, ‘oh, yes, my boss was XYZ and she used to do ABC’ or ‘yes that exact same thing happened to me and I did…’

Stephen Covey in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said, ‘Listen to understand before you can be understood’. To understand what someone else is saying you need really listen and put yourself in their shoes and view the world as they do.


6 tips from a coach to help you hone your listening skills

1. Enter into the conversation with an empty mind

We all have voices that run riotously in our heads…the piece of work that has to be finished by 3 pm, the 2 pm client feedback, the difficult conversation that you have been putting off and which has been weighing on your mind, the text from your daughter reminding you to pick her from gym which has jogged your memory that you need to fit this in with taking your son to swimming…

It is impossible to listen with all that mental clutter going on in your head. Clear your head by letting go of your thoughts. Imagine that all your thoughts have floated away and your mind is now a blank sheet of paper. Practice some deep breathing for a few minutes and allow your thoughts to drift away. If those niggling thoughts return, continue to focus on your breathing.

2. Put aside your assumptions

Suspend your own preconceptions, assumptions and lens through which you see the world and focus on the other person’s perspectives. Try to discover his standpoint and the beliefs and assumptions that have led to this. Listen with an open head and heart. Hear and feel what is being said from the other person’s viewpoint. Imagine yourself in his shoes.

3. Be a mirror

When two people are really paying attention to each other they often copy each other’s posture and will have similar body language. Their gestures and movements match each other. This is called mirroring each other, because they form a mirror image. Observe your and other person’s body language, gestures, posture, vocal tone and volume.

4. Show that you are listening

Demonstrate that you are listening by providing brief acknowledging responses, such as ‘uh huh’, nodding your head, making eye contact, adopting a relaxed body posture

5. Do not interrupt

Interrupting is a way of saying, ‘I have something more important to say than you have’. This interrupts the flow of thinking which may have led to some crucial discoveries, ideas or outcomes. Constant interruptions may lead to disengagement as the person will soon realise that you are not listening.

6. Ask good questions to check for mutual understanding:

  • Open ended questions:  who, what, when ,where, why ( use the latter with care as you may come across interrogative)
  • Probing questions: to gain further information, follow up and obtain more detail
  • Paraphrasing: summarise and reflect back what you are hearing and sensing to ensure that the message is received correctly. This is a good way to check that you are both saying the same thing and avoids either of you making assumptions.
  • Observing: as well as listening, be attune to body language and observe  for non verbal clues which will help you to match what is being said and the manner that it is said.

Effective leaders are excellent coaches. Develop your listening skills and enhance your coaching abilities.



Photo courtesy of Stocksnap
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