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Opinion: 6 must-have listening skills for smart leaders

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During a client meeting with a senior manager, one of his department managers stepped in with a quick update on an important issue. During the minute it took for the manager to update him, his listening habits became a highly teachable moment for our coaching session.

The executive made numerous listening mistakes: failed to make eye contact, didn’t paraphrase what was said, didn’t ask any questions, and nodded his head incessantly as he made annoyingly impatient remarks like, “Yeah, yeah,” “Uh-huh” and “Right, right, right.”

When his manager left, I discussed what had occurred. However, he was defensive initially and felt like he was a good listener because he had an excellent recall of what people said. Ultimately, he did recognize his blind spots and made improvements.

In my experience, a vast majority of leaders think they’re above-average listeners. Unfortunately, the bulk of listening training for management emphasizes popular and quick tips, such as acceptable body language, not interrupting and occasionally nodding, which only adds to the confusion of what good listening requires.

My evaluation from 30 years of coaching engagements and employee interviews suggests that a simplified list of listening behaviors fails to capture the skills needed by today’s leader.

There are six qualities that smart leaders use to be good listeners.

1. Give your undivided attention or don’t listen. If it’s not a good time for a co-worker to discuss something with you, set a later time. Don’t try to have a conversation when you really can’t have your mind on what they’re saying. Wait until you can give 100% of your attention, put away your smartphone and not look at your screen. The more you’re attentive, the better people will appreciate your leadership.

2. Ask engaging questions. Good listening requires more than being silent. It requires asking the right questions. But don’t ask questions to make the person feel good. Ask questions to get clarity and better results. Constructive questions tell the speaker that you comprehended what was said.

3. Paraphrase your speaker’s words. People are only sure you’re listening when you translate their words into feedback to them. This allows you to demonstrate clearly that your listening has been effective. Once you paraphrase back precisely what they said, seek their feedback until they say, “Yes, that’s it exactly.”

4. Guide the dialogue to a positive outcome. Good listening involves active discussion, with conversation flowing back and forth between parties. Flawed listening occurs when leaders listen primarily to identify weaknesses in logic, oversights or assumptions. A good listener won’t compete with the speaker and dominate the conversation, and they’ll focus on fully comprehending others’ viewpoints before asserting their own.

5. Be a leader that people consider helpful to discuss ideas. Good listening involves being objective and carefully considering what’s said before jumping to conclusions. Author Stephen Covey observed that good listeners prioritize the need to understand others rather than prioritizing their own need to be understood. Good listeners create a non-threatening climate for discussing issues openly.

6. Don’t impose your solutions. Charging forward with your solutions will cause followers to stop sharing their perspectives, or they’ll simply mirror your views to avoid conflict. The best listeners guide people to consider alternative solutions using questions like: “How do you think we could best achieve our goal?” or “What ideas have you had for solving this issue?”

Some leaders believe that listening will require too much time or that listening will make them look weak. However, not listening is costly to work relationships, organizational culture and leading change successfully, and it makes you appear unapproachable and out of touch.

Listening is vital to communication. If leaders want to arrive at the top of their field and lead adaptable, healthy companies, then strong listening is essential.

Consultant, professional speaker and author Mark Holmes is president of Consultant Board Inc. and He can be reached at


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