To Be a Great Leader You Have to Listen

Two skills make up the backbone of coaching: listening and asking questions. Today we are going to focus on listening.

Often leaders and managers under develop their listening skills. Why? For one, they aren’t taught how to truly listen. Second, leaders are expected to have all the answers. And third, it’s physiologically hard to listen.

The human mouth plods along at 125 words per minute, while a neuron in the brain can fire about 200 times a second. No wonder our mind wanders when there’s so much time in between the words of a conversation! This is part of the reason why we remember only 25% to 50% of what we hear.

Plus, when we are talking, we get a rush of chemicals sent to our reward and pleasure centers. There is no such reward for listening. When you listen, you are halting your natural ways of thinking. It is like holding your breath. When you practice listening, it’s a fitness test for the brain.

And don’t forget about the fact that feelings, assumptions and anxieties tend to dominate much of our attention while communicating, which makes it difficult to concentrate on what others are saying.

The good news is that listening skills can be learned and improved. While leaders can be coached in listening skills, it’s also important for managers who want to coach their team to master the art of listening. In other words, it’s a fundamental aspect to coaching no matter which side of the equation you’re on.

Why Listen?

Why bother? If you’re not listening at work, it’s easier to misinterpret a discussion as a decision. You may underestimate the importance of objections and ambivalence. And not listening is a quick way to dissolve trust between leaders and their teams.

Many of the reasons people choose to be better listeners include:

  • Increase their emotional intelligence
  • Gain more trust and influence with others
  • Better understand their client’s and customer’s needs, in order to innovate ways to meet those needs
  • Have people experience what it is like to be completely heard and understood
  • Build respect, and to learn from others

Being a better listener takes effort and a strategy. Much like any sport, you will want to learn the steps, and then practice, practice, practice. Your coach will help you do this, but you can also practice on your own.

Master Active Listening

The first thing to master is called active listening. What is it? There are five parts of communication — what’s said, what’s not said, words, tone of voice, and body language. Here’s an interesting article on the language of leadership.

Active listening is the process of fully attending to all parts of someone’s communication.

To improve your active listening skills, practice these three steps: 1) Focus on yourself, 2) focus on the other person, and 3) focus on the environment.

Here are some tips:

Three Steps to Improve Your Active Listening Skills

1. Focus on Yourself

  • Quiet your own thoughts and emotions
  • Make eye contact with the speaker (it will help you concentrate on them)
  • Mentally restate what you’re hearing them say
  • If you miss anything, or something seems unclear, ask them to repeat it

2. Focus on the Other Person

  • Make eye contact with the speaker (to let them know you’re listening)
  • Make appropriate reactions and sounds
  • When they’re done, repeat what you heard out loud
  • Do this until you’ve clearly heard what they were trying to say

3. Focus on the Environment

  • What do you hear? (Restlessness? Calm?)
  • What do you see? (Head-nodding? Phone use? Taking notes?)
  • What does your emotional intelligence say? (They’re losing interest? They like this idea!)

Next time you’re in a meeting, glance around. Is what you are hearing different than what you are seeing? Is what you are seeing different from what you are feeling?

Practice each step of listening until you feel you’ve mastered all three. Ask a few nonbiased people if they perceive you as a strong listener. Then actively listen to their responses! Active listening will greatly improve your coaching, and will benefit all of your relationships — inside or outside the workplace.

There are also things you can do day-to-day to improve your listening skills. Read over these tips on a regular basis until they are set in your mind.

Day-To-Day Listening Practices

To improve your listening, DO:

  • Be 100% present. This means turning off all electronics, and keep your eyes on the person.
  • Be content to listen and to stay in the conversation until the person feels like they are fully heard.
  • Ask questions and take notes, including word clarification. Many words in the English language have more than one meaning, or can vary drastically (such as the word “soon”).
  • Show engagement in your posture and your tone of voice by leaning into the conversation, and keeping your voice level.

To improve your listening, DON’T:

  • React emotionally. Stay calm and focused on the other person.
  • Offer suggestions or advice. This is a hard one! Yet if you are truly listening, all you’re doing is pulling information out. As soon as you start suggesting solutions, you are no longer listening.
  • Talk about yourself. Even if you have had the same experience, don’t tell your story. It takes the attention off the person and back onto you. A simple “I have been there” can do the trick.
  • Look at anything but the person. Stay focused on the person’s eyes, facial expressions, and body language.

It can’t be stressed enough just how important listening skills are for coaching. Whether you invest in building your listening skills by working with a coach, or commit to practicing yourself, it will be well worth your while. Paired with a strong grasp on how to ask the right questions in a coaching environment, which you can review here, you are well on your way to using coaching as a tool to enhance your impact as a leader.



Center For Human Capital Innovation

CHCI believes that the skills, capabilities, and well-being of employees are the most integral parts of any organization’s path to long-term success.