Listening: An underrated leadership competency

    Alexandra Montgomery

    Leaders are usually good at talking – we see them setting a strong direction, holding inaugural speeches, launching new markets and products, speaking at conferences. However, according to research by management consultant Zenger Folkman, employees rate leaders who listen significantly more effective than those who prefer talking.


    In addition, executives often think of themselves as good listeners. Indeed, we tend to equate listening with “not speaking,” and we misconstrue listening as a passive activity. As Stephen R. Covey points out in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.

    One of the most important gifts you can give another person is the purity of your attention – not your advice. Powerful listening has many benefits, among them:

    Leads to better decision-making as you take time to fully listen, both to rational and emotional aspects and the context in which they are presented.

    Augments your ability to identify your team’s, partners’ and stakeholders’ needs, respond in a purposeful way and generate win-win situations.

    Helps surface your intuition and inner guidance which in turn will boost your decision-making confidence when facing complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity.

    Enhances clarity and focus in both for the listener and the speaker, as the speaker feels heard and hence relaxes and becomes less defensive, more creative and forward-looking. By the same token, the listenerwill free up their mind from their own mental “noise”.

    Catalyses engagement as the other person will be encouraged to formulate their own solutions and take ownership of following through.

    Builds stronger relationships as your listening gives the other person the space to express what is going on for them without feeling judged.


    Given all the benefits of listening, it is surprising that we often hear complaints in teams that their manager “just doesn’t listen”. What does this mean exactly? Does it mean that the manager doesn’t empathise with their team member? Or that s/he doesn’t agree with the employees’ opinion? Or that they don’t respond promptly to employee concerns? Or all of those?

    Researchers agree that listening is a multi-faceted activity that involves separate but interrelated competencies. The HURIER model, developed by Prof. Judi Brownell, lays out these behavioural aspects and gives pointers as to how to improve your listening skills:

    1.   HEARING:

    This is the physical aspect of listening. The average person hears and processes spoken information at a rate at least twice as fast of normal speech – which means there is a lot of “unused” mental time when we listen. Most people will fill this unused mental time to think of other things rather than concentrating on what is being said.

    • Eliminate distractions, just as mobile phones or sound interruptions from your computer.
    • Do not multi-task when listening to someone, focus entirely on the speaker.
    • Position yourself where it is easy to hear.
    • If you are hungry, tired or have a headache, your listening will be impeded, so be authentic, ask to postpone and offer an alternative: “I would like to listen fully but right now I need to … Can we continue afterwards? Or, when can we continue the conversation?”


    This is to increase comprehension of what is being said, be it ideas, arguments, descriptions, concepts or sentiments. In our fast-moving business world, we need to be able to quickly understand technical or specialist jargon relevant to our line of work. Likewise, when faced with unfamiliar territory such as new markets, products or legal requirements, getting up to speed is essential to comprehension and constructive conversations.

    • Ask for clarification or examples when vocabulary or jargon is unfamiliar. Prepare yourself as well as you can before any important decision-making.
    • Understand that intercultural situations pose an additional challenge to mutual comprehension – see our previous article on intercultural communication.
    • Restate, paraphrase or summarise to ensure that you have understood completely.
    • Ask questions to clarify intentions, e.g. “What do you see as the main benefits of this approach?”
    • Distinguish details from the speaker’s main points.
    • Ask the person to summarise their main points and recommendations.
    • Refrain from interrupting the person speaking while they are elaborating their idea.


    Your ability to remember is very closely linked to your effectiveness as a listener. As a manager, you rely on information provided to you by your team members, and it clearly sends out a negative signal if your memory is weak. The same goes for asking the same questions over and over again, employees will likely perceive it as a lack of attention, interest or even provocation.

    • As you listen, quickly identify good reasons to remember what you hear. Listen out for something that triggers your interest and/or provokes a positive feeling – we remember better when our feelings are activated.
    • Stay calm and focused, stress interferes with memory. Practise mindfulness to stay present and attentive.
    • Learn short- and long-term memory techniques, e.g. visualisation of what is being said. Continuously practice to improve your memory.


    This is where we assign meaning to what is being said. What and how someone says something reveals not only their knowledge but also their perceptions, attitudes, values, expectations and experiences. Using empathy will help you to accurately interpret the meaning beyond the words, taking into account nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, and other body movements.

    • Observe yourself. What are you noticing about your body as the other person speaks? Use emotional intelligence tools or work with a coach to increase your self-awareness. This will promote “other-awareness” or empathy.
    • Observe the other person. With practice, and time, you will be able to identify certain nonverbal patterns that point to certain emotional states.
    • Listen for emotional messages as well as words, especially if you have a preference for factual information.
    • Encourage the speaker to express him/herself.

    5.   EVALUATING:

    This is where we evaluate the content, sincerity and intention of the message. Effective listeners are open-minded and withhold judgement until they are satisfied that they have a balanced view. They listen for the “appeal behind the message” – what is the speaker trying to achieve? They also take into account emotional information without getting unduly swayed by it.

    • Listen to the entire message before responding.
    • Distinguish emotional appeals from factual information.
    • Listen to a variety of viewpoints before making an important decision.
    • Recognise the influence of (your) personal values and cognitive bias.
    • Differentiate between the ideas presented and the person speaking.
    • Be curious – the best antidote against snap judgements!

    6.   RESPONDING:

    The last but essential step in effective listening is providing feedback to the other person with the aim to clarify or acknowledge what we have understood. A good listening response summarises your interpretation and evaluation to let the other person know that their message has arrived. If you are not clear, for example, you might say “I would like to be really clear about what you have just said so we can start looking at solutions. Could we go over the steps again, maybe with some concrete examples?”

    • Be aware of your unintentional nonverbal communication and tone of voice.
    • Observe your habitual listening response – do you ask clarifying questions, give your opinion straight away, use empathy or nonverbal gestures? Identify any patterns, i.e. in challenging conversations, what do you tend to do?
    • Expand your behavioural repertoire – make choices based on the needs of the situation rather than your comfort zone and habitual responses.

    While we all use these elements of listening to various degrees, you will find that you have preferences for one or two of them, e.g. you might remember details really well and use plenty of nonverbal cues to communicate you are engaged. Or some people are very apt at reading emotional undertones but neglect factual information. It is important to achieve a flow and balance between these elements in order to use listening as a leadership skill. Listening becomes an active tool that directs impact. Where your listening goes is where your attention goes. And where your attention goes is where you put your energy and where you will achieve results.

    As a leader, you are the steward of attention in your organisation.

    MIT Professor Otto Scharmer (Theory U) points out that leaders need to become aware of where attention goes in the organisation and actively take steps to manage it. It is clear that leadership is not so much about problem-solving but about facilitating spaces in which people and ideas can connect and problems can be solved together. Deep listening, paired with using powerful questions, are the competencies that unlock organisational effectiveness. With every conversation, you have the opportunity to build a listening environment by modelling more advanced levels of listening. As a leader, you are the steward of attention in your organisation. Ask yourself: Where do you think you might need to listen more?

    Written by The Kairos Project Associate – Alexandra Montgomery

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