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August 2022 View PDF
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Service Interruption Updates — learn more

7 Ways Leaders Can Listen More Effectively

Start by letting your team know you’re listening, not just hearing.

By Joel Schwartzberg


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We often think of leaders as strong speakers and thinkers, but the most admired leaders are also strong listeners. These leaders understand that their teams have a strong desire to be both heard and appreciated.

“Building positive relations is an important part of leadership, and listening is a critical part of building good relationships,” says Dr. Rick Fulwiler, president of Transformational Leadership Associates and an instructor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Actively listening to others lets them know that you are interested in their needs, as well as what they’re trying to say. When people feel that you care about them, it will make them more likely to follow your leadership.”

Effective listening starts with knowing the difference between passively hearing your team and actively listening to them. Below are seven ways to optimize the impact of your listening opportunities.


1Maintain eye contact.

Always face speakers and maintain eye contact. In a virtual meeting, that means looking into the camera’s cold eye, not into a warm digital face.


2Nod when you agree or understand.

Whereas smiling says, “I’m enjoying this,” and clapping says “good job,” nodding is the most effective way to show support for your ideas because it says, “I’m buying what you’re selling.” Nodding is also very easy, so do it often enough to be noticed.


3Use listening time to listen.

It may be tempting to plan what you’re going to say next when someone else is speaking, but this is disrespectful and can be very perilous. Misunderstanding a question, idea, or request because you didn’t effectively listen to it can damage your credibility and your team’s trust.


4Don’t interrupt.

Avoid interrupting members of your team or finishing their sentences. That’s not a leadership prerogative, and it is universally rude. Sometimes we think we’re affirming someone else’s point by finishing their sentences for them, but even if that’s technically true, we’re still trampling on their perspective. (Yes, my wife taught me that one.)


5Reflect questions back.

Try to repeat questions and concerns back to the speaker before offering your perspective or proposing a solution. For example, “I want to make sure I hear you correctly. You’re saying we have too many meetings, especially on Fridays. Is that correct?” This powerful acknowledgment elevates trust and demonstrates empathy even before you address the concern.


6Keep an open mind.

Stay objective and resist the urge to defend. Speaking and listening is a dialogue, not a debate, so focus on considering your team’s perspective, not making counterarguments.


7Ask probing questions.

After listening to your team, asking clarifying questions indicates you paid attention, value their feedback, and are open and eager to learn. Even if you have trouble conceiving specific questions, you can fall back on some basic ones like:

  • “How did you come up with the idea?”
  • “What would success look like to you?”
  • “How can we apply that approach throughout
    the company?”
  • “What can I do to help?”

Avoid asking questions in public that are challenging, potentially shaming, or reveal skepticism. For example, “How much will this cost?” or “But what happens if?” You can pose those questions later. The goal now is only to listen and clarify.

Productive communication is always a two-way street, involving both a speaker and a listener, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking one is always the leader and the other the employee. Effective listening is a critical function of effective leadership, so best to lead with your mind, mouth, and ears.


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