Listening: An underrated leadership competency

    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

    Regenerative Listening

    Four different levels of listening are identified by Otto Scharmer in Theory U. When I first saw them I was very much into the whole thing. I had participated in a 9-day intensive training in Non Violent Communication and was delighting in many conversations enacting some of the insights learned there. Listening was already shifting from a mere coordination activity to a deeply spiritual and loving practice.

    While the key insights from Non Violent Communication (NVC) allowed me to connect with others in a much deeper way, the listening levels suggested by Scharmer allowed me to see a renewed model of listening. Together with the three main attitudes he identifies for Theory U to work (open mind, open heart, and open will), it was an invitation to experience listening in a new way.

    I started to find myself wondering about these levels in my everyday life; recognising when I was operating with a downloading logic (first level of listening), operating from my own perspective and sticking to my patterns and habits of thought. Sometimes, when I acknowledged that, I tried to connect with my curiosity, open my mind and realize that I could go into the second level, factual listening, looking for understanding, aware about new things.

    From my own experience and from the tone of those conversations, it was clear that a change had happened, I was less in my mind and more in what I heard. I felt more interested in the conversations. Although subtle, this difference really made me ponder about the power of curiosity as a bypass for my prejudices.

    Next level seemed familiar, from my experience in NVC and other personal development paths I had experienced the power of opening up the heart and allowing myself to feel with the other, through empathic listening. Still, re-discovering it curiously from this perspective made the experience fresh and new. I discovered that it was enticing to practice the level knowing that there was still another one to try. As Fred Laloux suggests in Reinventing Organizationsthe excess of energy of the green stage of development, makes us connect endlessly and may blind us from acting towards any other common future.

    Then came the turn for connecting with courage, opening will and experiencing generative listening. Although I knew the meaning of all the words in that sentence and I realized I did not know how to put that sentence to action. I could imagine, or rather, sense that it required another attitude. So it didn’t only make sense, but it also felt great to discover the role presence had in this form of listening. Letting go for expectations and opening up to the realm of possibility with the conversation happening has unveiled a much deeper understanding of the way we communicate.

    Presence & awareness.

    U Theory invites us to discover the potential of presence in riding and facilitating waves of change or, as Scharmer calls it, “leading from the future as it emerges”. The very possibility of that happening lies beyond a set of distinctions and models. I have experienced it as a process of practices, attitudes, attention shifts, spirally woven into modifying the disposition, perception, response and overall configuration of our experience. That is how it opens an opportunity for leaders to be more tuned into the unfolding of life. Perhaps better still, it allows people surfing the crest of that very unfolding, to provide insights and hold collective leadership for communities to evolve and adapt more easily to our present day challenges.

    As you may already know (if you have already read some U Theory stuff — if not, there is a great website and the fabulous free online u.labcourse at, the approach suggests that at the core of the process there is presencing, being fully present, open and thrown into the unfolding of life. This is not something very natural to us. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Nowgoes into details of how little we live in the present moment, and how great it is to grow in it.

    Presence is one great tool and state we humans can count on. We all have it available to enact it when needed. Meditation has been my key for tapering into presence (and thus into deep listening). Regular meditation has allowed to develop the awareness of my being and my being present. It is this awareness about the state in which I find myself that allows me to acknowledge the place from where I listen and that, with courage, I open up to possibilities.

    This idea of opening up to possibilities was an instant link of U Theory with another great book that has been seasoning my walk: Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander’s The Art of Possibility. In that great piece the couple suggest 13 exercises for developing openness to possibilities. As it goes, possibility is not something out there different from me. Rather it is a pattern, a vibratory level of my relationship with reality; it is the operating condition of the place of happening: where experience happens.

    Entering such a place of awareness requires tapering into the fabric of reality. I have found myself sharing the image of an harpist that, coming to the climax of the piece, strums the strings with both hands at the same time: left hand swiftly pushing upwards from the long, groovy bass strings, while the right hand excites first the crispy shiny high strings and head down. In that fashion the whole set of strings is creating a powerful sound and a space in between the individual strings; the whole set evokes a non-verbal yet powerful explanation of string theory.

    Tapering into that space of happening has only happened to me after doing a 10-day training on Vipassana meditation. The technique is quite bold in stating that our attention is the main tool for out meditation. “Work diligently” we were reminded thoroughly, “you are bound to be successful”, Goenkaji adds lifting up our spirits after long meditation stretches. After having experienced and realized how my attention got more precise it made much more sense when I heard Scharmer saying: “Pay attention to your attention”. That was the key to start experiencing and realizing the different levels of listening he shared.

    Feelings, needs and possibility.

    Following our western logic, I often find myself tempted to believe that in these levels identified by Scharmer higher means better. Thus I tend to think I have to attain and maintain generative listening. Yet, very often something different shows up: a need to function on a more practical and faster way: simple commands, coordinating instructions, being at a seminar for one or two full days. With each of these experiences I become aware that in listening, the four levels are necessary and perhaps the art consists in learning when to switch to which level.

    Yet, it can be a little trickier than just choosing. Listening from higher levels also requires tapping into some internal reservoirs for empathy, time, availability, openness, tolerance. And the more I practice enacting generative the more aware I become that I don’t always have available the internal conditions for it to happen. Sometimes it is about an idea that is very predominant in my head that might condition my capacity to listen openly and actively. The same happens with empathic listening; sometimes I am coming with a frustration or anger and, until I can recycle it, it might be difficult to offer empathy or an emotional container for somebody else. I find it hard to offer compassion and empathy when I am in need of that myself.

    Remarkable it is: the very recycling that I need in those situations can be easily generated by a conversation -another one or perhaps that very same one with a shift. The conversational shift it needs is the acknowledging of each other needs and the inquiry into how they are present at any given time in the sharing. From the understanding that all humans share common needs (they just differ in prevalence, time, and strategies to meet them), Non Violent Communication has widely promoted sharing our needs and feelings about them, as well as listening to others from that perspective.

    Meditation is another way of getting an internal condition that allows for generative listening. The very practice of awareness of the breath and the present moment increases internal coherence and prepares us to be more mind like water. It can help with tuning ourselves altogether and/or at least identifying our feelings and emotions.

    Rooting into meditation offers a deeper perspective into this. Visualizing roots into the Earth from our buttocks, knees, feet or any other contact point, allows us to connect with the bigger loving matrix of creation: Gaia. After rooting, we may resume our conversation with somebody else with that deep connection. In doing so, we may offer a much wider channel for emotional recycling and fresher grounds for opening to the realm of possibility. Deep ecology might offer us a little explanation of this.

    Together with meditation, this last year I have also received the gift of learning about deep-ecology through Joanna Macy’s The Work That Reconnects. This experience has invited me to think myself from a completely different perspective: instead of thinking our humanity (and me as part of it) as the central character of the story, it suggests we consider ourselves part of a much bigger living system. One individual, of one species, of the thousand species that make up the effervescent crust of Gaia. The more I meditate upon this awareness, not thinking about it, but meditating from that ‘starting point’, the more I resonate with us being Gaia’s children, “we are part of her dance”. This perspective is often called eco-psychology.

    The great Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was once asked: “if we could do only one thing to solve our challenges as humanity, what would be the wisest thing to do?”. I reckon he looked for the question in his heart, pondering inwards with a serene smile. He said “what we most need to do is to hear within us the sound of the earth crying”.

    Every time I consider that answer I am taken to a very deep space within me. It is a swift yet powerful invitation to acknowledge the whole idea of thinking ourselves as part of something much bigger than me, than us humans. Within that space, I can understand my own emotions as reactions regarding the meeting or unmeeting of Gaia’s needs.

    Reweaving our fabrics.

    Paying attention to my attention while keeping this truthful invitation from Thich Nhat Hanh in mind, has made me understand another twist in our conversations: the possibility of regenerating, the possibility of healing and transforming ourselves through our conversation.

    This is quite evident in the cases of psycotherapy, life coaching, professional coaching or even a good feedback session at work. Yet, perhaps less evident is that any conversation can be an instance to honor our eco-systemic identity and, while acknowledging the needs in the conversation, connect deeper and open to further possibilities about strategies for providing a new scenario where those needs be met, and thrive in the collaboration needed to get there.

    Any conversation, with the right conditions: presence, awareness, detachment to ideas, care for connection, availability, and those three key attitudes suggested by Scharmer: curiosity (open mind), compassion (open hear), courage (open will).

    Like that we may achieve regeneration listening: reweaving our ecological social and spiritual fabric.

    By Kairos Associate – Tomas Gueneau