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Why listening is the mother of all leadership skills (and 4 ways to cultivate it)

As published by Idealog on August 13, 2015

The best leader I ever worked with was an exceptional listener. When he was in conversation with someone, he gave them his full, undivided attention. It was as if whoever he was speaking with was the only person in the room. It was a phenomenal thing to witness, let alone be a recipient of.

By doing this, not only did he empower his team to perform at their best, but the ripple effect of his listening abilities spread throughout the entire organisation.

When I broached the topic of his skill with him, he confided that early on in his life, he was the recipient of ‘deep listening’ from a teacher. It had such a profound impact on him, he vowed to cultivate this powerful (and unfortunately, rare) skill.

The more I learn about leadership, the more I have come to believe – with all my head, heart and soul – the most powerful tool for a leader to develop is the ability to listen.

I’m not talkin’ about “I’m only waiting for you to finish your bit so I can say my piece” listening. Or, “I have a million deadlines to meet so let’s wind this word-fest up real quick” listening. Or even, “let me stop you right there and tell you what to do so I feel clever” listening.

I mean deep listening – with full presence, attention and intention to understand.

If leaders practiced this type of deep listening with their team members, managers, customers, suppliers and each other, there would be an explosion of unleashed potential in organisations on a scale we have never seen before.

Research has found that listening effectively enables us to get more information from the people we manage. It increases trust, reduces conflict and enables a better understanding of how to motivate others. It inspires a higher level of commitment in the people we manage and the company we represent.

But deep, active listening with full presence, is also a rare jewel in organisations.

We listen to people at a rate of 125-250 words per minute, but think at 1,000-3,000 words per minute. Research shows that the average person listens at only about 25% efficiency.

Is this surprising?

When was the last time you had someone give you their full, undivided attention at work? Someone who just listened – without seeking to solve, put their slant on it, give you advice, interrupt, check their phone or start thinking about the next board report…

Here are just four ways to cultivate this exceptional skill:

1. Ditch the distractions and look at the person

Put down your device of choice, make eye contact and give someone your complete attention. What message does it send to your team, let alone the person you’re talking to, if they sense you’re just not that into it?

2. Suspend judgement

You can’t listen to understand if you are already crafting your response, or jumping to judgement mode. Truly empathetic listening cannot occur if you are positional. Seek to understand this person’s frame of reference. Put yourself in their shoes. Perhaps especially if you disagree or have a vastly different perspective. Yes, that’s tough.

3. Become an expert at paraphrasing and reflecting back what you’ve heard

As well as letting the other person know you have given them the courtesy of your attention, it’s an excellent mechanism for avoiding assumptions – and miscommunication.

4. Sift for nuggets in the conversation and probe more around these

Body language and ‘charged’ words or phrases are good clues to delve deeper. Phrases like “tell me more about that” and “what do you mean when you say…” should be part of your regular conversational repertoire.

When we listen in this way, people feel seen and heard.

When people feel seen and heard, they perform at their best.

When people perform at their best, we are doing our job as a leader.


  1. […] giving in to the urge to fix anything, interrupt, and tell them what to do. Instead, practice active listening and use open questions to understand their perspective. Coach them. If in doubt, just shut up and […]

  2. […] on a topic. The trick is to ensure that while one person speaks, the rest of the team listen (see here for tips on how to get better at that crucial organisational skill). Don’t let the meeting […]

  3. […] Deeply and actively. See here and here for why this is important for leaders. Listen with all your senses, not just to the words […]

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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