Let’s face it: strong leaders tend to be characterized by their strong opinions, decisive action, and take-no-prisoners attitude. These are important traits, but it’s equally important for managers to stand down and listen up. Yet many leaders struggle to do this, in part because they’ve become more accustomed to speaking than listening. So, how can you develop this muscle? What are the barriers to good listening and how do you overcome them?


What the Experts Say

“As a leader, you need to have a strong voice and you need to know when it’s time to listen,” says Amy Jen Su, co-owner of Paravis Partners, an executive training and coaching firm. “A real conversation is a two-way dialogue; it requires both parts.” Christine Riordan, a leadership coach and president-elect of Adelphi University, agrees: “To be able to motivate and inspire others, you need to learn how to listen in both individual meetings and at the group level.”  Fortunately, there are concrete ways to improve this important skill. Both Su and Riordan agree that the key is to start with the right mindset.


Make it a priority

First, you need the will. “You have to put it at the top of your list and acknowledge it’s a skill that’s important in your role as a leader. It has to be an active decision,” says Riordan. And to get over a need to talk or interject, adapt a mindset that will allow you to hear what’s being shared. If you believe you have all the answers, you simply have no reason to listen to others. Some of Su’s strongest clients build their listening skills by focusing on co-creation. “They recognize their own intellect, but they also recognize that their colleagues are equally smart and have something of value to say.”


Know thyself

It’s important to understand what’s holding you back. Are you a naturally good listener or do you have a more assertive personality? “There are personality traits that lend themselves to more empathic listening,” explains Riordan. “If you’re extroverted and conversational, you’re usually the one doing most of the talking.” Su had a client who was strong, passionate, and innovative. The downside to these fiery traits was that he was, as his subordinates and teammates described him, a “bull in a china shop” when it came to listening. To make matters worse, he was totally unaware of it.  To break him of this bad habit, Su instructed him to use a “listening stick.” He started at home with his wife (who was thrilled at the prospect of his transformation into a better listener). Every time he wanted to talk during dinner, he had to wait for his wife to pass the listening stick. This physical cue finally helped him improve.


When assessing your own habits, also take your upbringing into account. “Some of us may have had early experiences in life where we were taught to be listeners instead of speakers, deferring to others. Some of us were taught that it was weak to listen, that we need to speak up,” says Su. Without first recognizing the influence of your early years, it’s difficult to change.


Get rid of distractions

When your attention is elsewhere during a conversation, you risk sending a message that the speaker and their message are unimportant. “We assume being on our iPhone or tablet isn’t a big deal, but when you speak to the people who work for those leaders, it has a really negative impact,” explains Su. And realistically, splitting your attention in such a way prevents you from getting the full picture; after all, you can’t pick up on facial expressions if your gaze is down at your phone. Demonstrate that you are listening by silencing phones, darkening your desktop monitor, and putting away anything that has the potential to distract you from the conversation at hand.


Look for nonverbal cues

Communication is much more than the words spoken. As Riordan says, “It’s not just content, it’s context, too.” People communicate in a myriad of ways and many of them are nonverbal. “In a conversation, people might say one thing but their face and body are saying the opposite.” Don’t let these cues pass by unaddressed. Acknowledge the information you’re receiving with questions like, “You seem excited about this, can you tell me more?” or “I get the sense that this upsets you, is there anything you need to share?”


Control your reactions

But don’t just focus on their body language. Control yours too. There are times this is challenging, either because we disagree strongly or because the news is upsetting. Riordan has seen leaders overreact to information, typically by snapping or very vocally disagreeing with the bearer before the message has been fully delivered–particularly when the news is bad. Regardless of the information you receive, it’s just as important to maintain control over your body language as it is to notice theirs. Practice sitting still and maintaining silence. Riordan advises us to avoid the rush to react or contradict.



Validate and verify

Leaders who are effective listeners validate and ask clarifying questions. “They don’t make assumptions. They drill down into the content of the conversation and verify what they’ve heard,” explains Riordan. They typically ask questions like, “Here’s what I thought you said, is that correct?” To be clear, Riordan stresses that you don’t have to agree with what’s being said. You can acknowledge and even express gratitude for the information, regardless of how you feel about it. Always close the talk with a summary of points heard and next steps.


Principles to Remember


  • Take an honest look at both your good and bad habits
  • Clear out all distractions that might draw your attention away from the person in front of you
  • Ask clarifying questions and repeat back what you heard



  • Assume you know all of the answers — allow for the possibility that others have valuable information to share
  • Overlook nonverbal cues — they often reveal what a person is really thinking
  • React emotionally to what is being said — acknowledge the information even if you don’t agree