Listening Skills for Leaders: 8 Ways to be Sure You Get the Message

Have you ever been in a situation where you had something to say, but people didn’t seem to be listening?  How did that make you feel?  I’m guessing your response would not include words like  “understood,” or “respected.”

Listening skills are are often overlooked in leaders and yet are so essential to our ability to lead.  We’ll try to fix some of that today by giving you eight ways to be a better leader by listening.

Listening Skills for Leaders - 8 Ways to be Sure you Get the Message

Does This Sound Familiar?

You are in the middle of a conversation.  You are trying to pay attention.  But something the other person said triggers a stray thought.  Your mind glances over.  It’s a small, but somehow captivating little notion.  You wander over to check it out.

The thought grows, and it becomes more interesting, but as you get closer, it rises and moves away.  You follow it for a while, around corners, down hallways.

Sometimes it looks back to see if you are following.  “I wonder where it’s taking me” you might be thinking.  It’s heading up a stair case and has opened a doorway to a large room, when suddenly you hear a voice in the distance say, “…so what do you think?”

The room disappears, the screen goes blank, and you realize you were in a one-sided conversation, and you weren’t the one participating.


You struggle for enough of the right words to convey the sense that you were paying attention.  But you know it’s lame.

It happens to me more often that I’d like to admit.  I might have listening skills, but I wasn’t listening.

There are other versions of this story:

• Something the other person says hits a trip wire.  The alarm sounds, the draw bridge goes up, and you start directing your soldiers to man the defenses.  You are so busy commanding your troops and preparing for the counter argument that you aren’t hearing the other person at all.  You’re just waiting for your chance to shoot back.

• The phone in your pocket buzzes. You fight curiosity, but fail.  You sneak a quick look, and are disappointed to discover it’s only an “urgent” email notification about a “limited time only discount offer.”  You ease the phone back into your pocket, but you’ve missed a few key plot points in the conversation.  You have questions but don’t ask them because they’ll reveal your inattention. Don’t kid yourself – they saw you check.

Not listening well isn’t just about us letting our mind wander. How’s that other person feeling about our leadership right about now?

You’d Think We’d be Better at This

With two ears and one mouth, you’d think we’d be better at listening, but we aren’t.  In a 1957 University of Minnesota study, researchers found we only remember 25 to 50% of what we hear.  I’m guessing we haven’t gotten any better since then; more likely, it’s worse.

Not everyone is a compelling speaker.  Not every subject is captivating.  There is not always enough time for lingering, clarifying, and elaborating.  So many other things compete for our attention.

But if we’re going to spend the time conversing with somebody, wouldn’t it make sense to be sure to listen to what they are saying?  If we are the leader, isn’t it all the more important that we have the listening skills to help us understand what’s going on in the minds of our teammates?

Pay Attention or Pay the Price

Without good listening, people don’t open up and true communication suffers.  Feeling ignored, people withdraw.  Great ideas become missed opportunities.  Threatening issues get buried, only to reemerge as bigger problems.

When our teammates have something to say, we have to pay attention.  How?  These listening skills can help.

Put down the toys.  Whether it’s a smart phone or a fidget spinner, they distract your attention from the other person.  Close the laptop, turn away from the screen, and hit the mute button on the remote so you can focus entirely on the other person – not just the words.

Go full frontal.  Angling your body away from the other person signals you are not fully engaged and may be looking for a way out.  Face them, square your shoulders, and get involved in the conversation.

Unfold.  Crossing your arms and legs can be considered a defensive signal; you may be consciously or unconsciously resistant to what others are saying.  Unfold to telegraph your openness and desire to listen.

Listen with your eyes.   Those hazel, brown or blue orbs on your face are portals into what your mind is doing.  Let that squirrel go do its thing, and keep your eyes (and your mind) on your target: the other person.  Make and hold direct eye contact from time to time to really connect.

Encourage.  Nodding and showing expressions from time to time demonstrates that you are paying attention.  Be sure your expressions match the mood, and are supportive rather than critical.  An eye roll or a sneer can shut down communications as effectively as if you simply walked away.

Feed back.  Communication necessarily includes a feedback loop.  If the other person is sending, then your job is to receive and provide feedback about the message.  Show you are keeping your part of the bargain. One great way to stay focused is to rephrase and send back.  This doesn’t mean you necessarily agree; you are showing that you heard them.

“So what you are saying is…”

Put your brain in gear.  Instead of thinking about your reply or what’s for lunch, pretend that there will be a test after the conversation is over and you will have to detail what the other person’s ideas and positions were.  What was the crux of their argument?  What were the supporting ideas? What was the sub-text?  What didn’t they say?

Become a translator.  Look at the body language and think about what they are saying physically.  Do their stance, gestures, and eyes reinforce the words they are saying, or are they signalling something different?

Listening Skills for Leaders – The Takeaway

Leadership is influence and influence happens through communication.  And it’s not just about you taking to others.  Sometimes you have to stop yourself from talking, and invest the time and effort to not just hear, but really listen to what someone is saying to you.

Dave Isay said that “Listening is an act of love.”  I think he’s right.  When you devote your time and give attention to someone else, that can be an expression of love.

You know what else I think it is?

Listening is an act of Leadership. Click To Tweet

I think Richard Branson would agree about the importance of good listening skills.  He once said, “No one has a monopoly on good ideas or good advice.  Get out there, listen to people, draw people out, and learn from them.”

Listen to them.  Love them.  Lead them.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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