The Leadership Guide to Listening

Listening is by far one of the greatest skills a leader can acquire.  It is through listening that a leader can understand their environment as well as their followers. Without understanding these how can one lead?

I used to think that listening was easy, just a matter of keeping quiet and hearing the words coming out of someone’s mouth. I was very wrong. The Competent leadership manual at Toastmasters includes a lot of assignments where you practice listening. It’s only when i took part in some of these assignments that i fully understood the effort involved in listening.

What is listening?

Firstly lets differentiate listening from hearing.

Wikipedia says: Listening is often confused with hearing. While hearing is a biological process that can be scientifically explained, listening is a neurological cognitive regarding the processing of auditory stimuli received by the auditory system.

The dictionary says: to hear what someone has said and understand that it is serious, important, or true.

Clearly is listening involves understanding. Listening has many components to it, in order to fully understand a message you need to understand not only what a person is saying but how they are saying it as well as their body language when they are saying it. In this article we will focus mainly on the verbal aspects of listening, that is, what they are saying and how they are saying it.

Why we don’t we listen. 

Let’s firstly try and understand why listening to others is not as easy as it may seem.

  1. Some people are simply boring when they speak, they do not evoke excitement or interest. It is simply painful to listen to someone who is the opposite of a great story teller. Their voice is monotone and the start a story with the conclusion. We all have experience with such individuals. When you talk to them your mind starts wondering, you look at their hair or you find yourself totally zoning out.
  2. We have a better story. I’m just waiting for my turn to speak because this guy’s story is not half as exciting as mine. Instead of listening we spend half of the conversation trying to find the best time to interject and add our two cents. This happens mostly because you really don’t respect the person who is speaking, you don’t think their story will add value and basically you actually don’t give half a damn.
  3. Native language issues. Anyone who speaks more than one language can tell you that some jokes are just not as funny when told in a different language. Some English jokes are just plain vulgar when they are told in my native tongue. Some people aren’t good English speakers and you have to try really hard to understand what they are saying. They will tell you a heartfelt story where a HE will turn into a SHE and a HER in a HIM therefore unwittingly watering down the meaning of their sob story.
  4. Thick accent.


Why should we listen?

This seems pretty obvious but nothing is really ever obvious.

  1. Builds trust. Listening is a very good way of building trust with the audience because by shutting up and paying attention you are showing the individual that you respect what they are saying. If you respect them they are more likely to respect you as well and this builds your credibility. It also shows that you are willing to work with others and not only thinking about yourself. People always run to the person who is willing to listen because they feel as if their concerns will at least be fairly heard.
  2. Strengthens relationships. The universal requirement that single women have when looking for a partner is that he must be a great listener. This doesn’t apply only to romantic relationships but also to business and to leadership. We already said that listening builds trust and trust is the basis of any relationship. If your clients know that you will listen to them the better your relationship with them.
  3. Information. They less time you spend listening the less information you will get. This is particularly important in the work place because you need to get things done with the best information possible. As a consultant the number one thing I’ve learnt is that people tend to already have the solutions to their problems. You just need to let them speak long enough and they will come full circle from a problem to a solution without even realising it. Then you stick them with a big fat invoice. As a leader how can you lead people if you do not have the information about who they are and what they want to achieve?


How we should listen

Active listening is a skill that takes patience and practice. You need to actively learn how to listen until the skill becomes a passive action and part of what you do. These are the steps that you need to take in order to make sure that every listening engagement you have has a positive outcome.

  1. Prepare: You need to prepare yourself mentally. Tell yourself that your main duty in this conversation is to listen. Remind yourself that you need to keep quiet until the other speaker completely finishes what they have to say. Prepare yourself to be patient with the speaker as they try and tell you their story. Clear your mind of any preconceived notions about the speaker or their topic that you might have, these will distract you from listening. Basically be aware and alert to the fact that you are the listener not the speaker.
  2. Pay attention: This requires you to remove or avoid any distractions that you might have. That includes your cell phone or the TV. For the next few minutes dedicate your life’s purpose to paying attention to this individual. Ensure that you maintain eye focus as the speaker speaks while this might be awkward at first you will get used to it. Ensure that your body language or posture is open and inviting as opposed to closed and cold. Most importantly avoid creating a response while the person is speaking as this will distract you from listening. This will also help to stop you interrupting the person while they speak. It is very important that you wait for the person to finish speaking otherwise you are responding to half-baked ideas.
  3. Feedback: Feedback shows the speaker that you are paying attention and that you are in that moment with them. This includes smiling, nodding or phrases such as “go –on”. Once the speaker has finished speaking the platform is now yours. You shall use this platform to provide feedback to what the speaker just communicated to you. Summarise what the speaker has just said to you and allow them to clarify or verify any facts. You should also ask questions in order to validate information and action.

Please note that these steps are a cycle that you need to repeat until both parties are satisfied that the message was exchanged clearly.


Listening is one of the key pillars to being an effective leader. Even if you are a good listener you can always improve your listening and in so doing you can improve on how you influence people around you and become a more effective leader.

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