Listening is hard. An integral part of the leadership of change, listening is one of the underutilised, often forgotten “superpowers” of expert leaders.  When speakers are heard by a great listener, they feel their thoughts are engaged with, their voice is in the room and that they have a say in the direction of the organisation.

Evaluating “Good Listening”

When evaluating whether we are good at listening, we need to consider how we listen, and the level of our attention:

  • Internal – focussed on your own thoughts.
  • Focussed – focussing on the other person without connecting with them (e.g. no consideration for body language, the words or tone used).
  • 360 listening – focused on what they are saying, how they are saying it, and what they are not saying (what issues they skirt around).

Some of the factors that prevent leaders from “good listening” could include:

  • Power – leaders could feel that by listening to others, this makes them appear weak as it could go against the hierarchy of the organisation.
  • Time and effort – leaders could worry that it takes time and effort to listen to an individual properly and engage with their thought processes.
  • Fear of change – leaders could fear that by engaging with a listener’s theory of action, they will change their own viewpoints and perspectives, which could lead to further change.

What people often consider “good listening” is:

  • Not talking when others are talking.
  • Showing attention through verbal or non-vernal expressions.
  • Repeating what has been said, word-for-word.

While these can be important, they are not at the core of “good listening”. Just because you are not talking, are you paying attention to what the speaker is saying? As you verbally and non-verbally provide cues of your attention, could you be putting the speaker off, making them feel they must rush what they have to say so you can comment? By repeating verbatim what has been said, have you shown your understanding of the speaker’s thoughts?

What is Good Listening?

High quality listening focusses on being attentive, empathetic, and non-judgemental; but how can we do this?

  • Give you full attention to the conversation.
  • Do not interrupt the answer of the speaker.
  • Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to respond.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions or impose your solutions.
  • Ask questions to shape the conversation, delving deeper into the speakers thoughts and experiences. Consider the intent and scope (field of view) of the question.

When considering how you listen, it is useful to consider:

  • Have you created an environment where the speaker feels psychologically safe enough to ask for help, share complex issues and be heard?
  • Have you removed anything that may cause a distraction, such as a phone or a laptop? Therefore, is the speaker the sole focus of your attention?
  • Are you trying to understand what is being said, or are you drawing your own conclusions?
  • Have you reflected on the body language of the speaker in an attempt to understand how they are feeling?
  • As the listener, are you trying to engage and empathise with the speaker, as well as delve deeper into any assumptions or conclusions they have reached?
  • Are you carefully shaping new thoughts and ideas that can be discussed with the speaker?

Adapted from What Great Listeners Actually Do, Jack Zenger Joseph Folkman1


“Senior leaders confront a paradox: They have access to more lines of communication than anybody else has, but the information they get is suspect and compromised. Warning signals are tamped down, key facts are omitted, and data sets are given a positive spin.”2

After spending an intense period of time listening, it is worth considering your behaviours during the process. Did you jump to conclusions, or offer solutions? Did you allow the speakers to say everything that was one their mind? Was your approach any different from if the conversation was at the start of the day? Did you ensure that nothing else distracted you from what was being said by the speaker? Did you close with any actions, and how will you follow up on them?

It is important to remember then when we stop listening, we become impatient, arrogant and in denial of the problems that may exist within our teams. This will only lead to future problems as the information you aim to receive from the people in the know, your team that are doing the work, will be distorted and diluted.

Poor listening leads to teams withholding information, not sharing problems, and potentially making them worse. Good listening leads to strong teams, with shared solutions and high levels of self-awareness.

Further reading:



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