Great leaders are great listeners
We have discussed a couple of good qualities of an effective leader
in my previous columns from time to time. Today my topic will be good
listening. Good listening is an essential part of being a good leader.
You cannot be a good leader unless you are a good listener. You as a
leader must be very aware of the feedback you are receiving from the
people around you. If you are not a good listener, your future as a
leader will be short.
A good leader is always a good listener
I have come across quite a few leaders of this caliber in my working
life. In certain organizations, people have named certain top chairs as
burning chairs. They say whoever sit on these chairs are having a short
life due to their inability to listen to others. May be it is a myth
thinking. But this is how people have interpreted it.
I might add that being a good listener is a skill important in many
other settings. For example, being a good listener will enhance your
social relationships of all types, marriage, dating, parties, work, etc.
A good leader is a good listener. A good listener may be or may not
be a leader. But a good listener is usually popular which an important
step in becoming a leader is. People like to be around someone who
You and I can improve our listening habits. It will take
concentration and hard work. Our listening habits are the results of
years of often-unconscious behaviour. Do we maintain eye contact? Do we
really work at listening?
Over the past several months, I interviewed half-dozen well-known
business leaders just to find out how effective leaders they are. One
observation I made is great leaders are great listeners. Extraordinary
men and women solicit feedback, listen to opinions and act on that
intelligence. Listening skills have always been important in the
workplace, but are even more so when dealing with young employees.
Unlike in the traditional days, today's employee wants to be asked for
feedback and he or she wants to be heard.
Good listening includes a package of skills, which requires knowledge
of technique and practice very similar to good writing or good speaking.
Many people believe that good listening skills are easy to learn or
automatically part of every person's personality. Neither is correct.
The difference is that poor listening skills are often not as obvious to
other people. If we cannot speak effectively, it is immediately obvious,
but it may take a little time for other people to become aware that you
or I are poor listeners.
Poor listening habits are very common. Indeed, poor listening skills
are more common than poor speaking skills. I am sure that you have seen
on many occasions, two or more people talking to each other at the same
time. This is a very common scene you can see when the politicians are
When they talk while others are listening, nobody is trying to stop
them talking because of the power they do have. This is other way around
when you take a great leader like Bill Clinton. The following is the
extract I made from a certain article written by an American writer.
"The other week I asked a newspaper reporter who he considered the
most inspiring person he had ever met. He answered Bill Clinton without
hesitation. When I asked him why, this reporter told me he had met
Clinton after the former President gave a speech in South Africa.
According to the reporter, "Clinton looked me in the eyes and seemed to
have a genuine interest in what I was saying. His gaze never left me. He
made me feel like the most important person in the room at the time, and
Microsoft founder Bill Gates was standing right next to us!"
People cannot talk and be an effective listener at the same instance.
What is not so obvious is when you and I are only paying partial
attention or do not fully understand. There are some games that we use
in the training room and elsewhere in which we start some information
through a line of people. Each one passes the information to the next.
The end result is usually very different than what was started. Some
of the differences are the result of poor listening skills.
Good listening skills will vary from one communications situation to
the next. For example, what is effective feedback will vary from one
person to another? Some people to whom you are listening may need more
feedback than other people.
Listening skills can always be improved. Perfection in listening,
just as in other communications skills, does not exist. In communicating
the responses we make as leaders, to other people's statements can have
an empowering or diminishing effect.
Telling the person or group what to do, trying to sell the person or
group on our point of view, or telling the person what their feelings or
motivations are, take away the other person's sense of autonomy,
self-reliance and equality. Not only at the training room, even at home,
you have to be an effective listener to your spouse as the leader of the
house. If you do not listen to the spouse, your family life will be a
very short one. Disputes will start generating at home unless you become
a good listener to each other.
Here are some of the kinds of statements that have an empowering
Active listening: being responsive to what the person says. Asking
for more information: showing interest by asking the person to elaborate
on what he or she has said
Paraphrasing: telling the other person what you think he/she meant in
order to make sure that the message he/she intended to send was the one
Checking your assumptions about the person's feelings: making sure
the person is feeling the emotions you think.
Sharing information to help the other person understand your point of
view: telling the other person information that helped you form your
Reporting your own feelings: telling the other person what your
emotional state is.
Offering alternatives: suggesting other courses of action as
possibilities for the other person to assess. Many managers talk about
being good listeners, yet this skill often remains an area in need of
substantial improvement. The benefits of good listening are numerous.
Relationships improve, productivity and work performance are enhanced,
team spirit is fostered, morale increases, and your staff gains better
perspective and understanding of your mission as a leader of an
organization. Good listening skills engender trust. And trust is what
separates effective participatory leaders from autocratic managers.
If you are listening effectively, the odds are that your subordinate
is talking 80% of the time, and you are talking only 20% of the time.
When you speak, you ask short, simple questions that draw the person
out. What's more, you ask questions in a concerned, nonthreatening style
and tone. Good listeners let their subordinates vent when necessary and
acknowledge their feelings.
It is critical that the listener stay open and no defensive,
conveying genuine concern, no matter what the staff member says.
Maintain the attitude that this person is your teammate and wants to
improve things. Learn all you possibly can from your teammates so you
are able to address their concerns effectively. Demonstrating your
concern by helping team members resolve problems to their satisfaction
not only strengthens the unit, it also provides flexibility for you when
problems that are beyond your control arise. Past successes build trust,
so your teammates are much more likely to listen to you and be
reasonable when a problem exceeds your authority.
In addition, there are some special attributes with regard to good
listening. If you need to become a leader, please read through these
attributes and try to follow them.
1. Attention. Attention may be defined as the visual portion of
concentration on the leader. Through eye contact (see below) and other
body language, we communicate to the leader that we are paying close
attention to his or her messages. All the time we are reading the verbal
and nonverbal cues from the leader, the leader is reading ours. What
messages are we sending out? If we lean forward a little and focus our
eyes on the person, the message is we are paying close attention.
2. Eye contact. Good eye contact is essential for several reasons:
First, by maintaining eye contact, some of the competing visual inputs
You are not as likely to be distracted from the person talking to
you. Second, most of us have learned to read lips, often unconsciously,
and the lip reading helps us to understand verbal messages.
Third, much of many messages are in non-verbal form and by watching
the eyes and face of a person we pick up clues as to the content. A
squinting of the eyes may indicate close attention.
A slight nod indicates understanding or agreement. Most English
language messages can have several meanings depending upon voice
inflection, voice modulation, facial expression, etc. Finally, our eye
contact with the speaker is feedback concerning the message: Yes, I am
listening, I am paying attention. I hear you.
Remember: a person's face, mouth, eyes, hands and body all help to
communicate to you. No other part of the body is as expressive as the
3. Receptive body language. Certain body postures and movements are
culturally interpreted with specific meanings. The crossing of arms and
legs is perceived to mean a closing of the mind and attention.
The nodding of the head vertically is interpreted as agreement or
assent. (It is worth noting that nonverbal clues such as these vary from
culture to culture just as the spoken language does.) If seated, the
leaning forward with the upper body communicates attention. Standing or
seated, the maintenance of an appropriate distance is important. Too
close and we appear to be pushy or aggressive and too far and we are
seen as cold.
4. Understanding of communication symbols. A good command of the
spoken language is essential in good listening.
Meaning must be imputed to the words. For all common words in the
English language there are numerous meanings.
The three-letter word, "run" has more than one hundred different
uses. You as the listener must concentrate on the context of the usage
in order to correctly understand the message.
The spoken portion of the language is only a fraction of the message.
Voice inflection, body language and other symbols send messages also.
Thus, a considerable knowledge of nonverbal language is important in
5. Objective We should be open to the message the other person is
sending. It is very difficult to be completely open because each of us
is strongly biased by the weight of our past experiences. We give
meaning to the messages based upon what we have been taught the words
and symbols mean by our parents, our peers and our teachers.
Talk to someone from a different culture and watch how they give
meaning to words. Or another listening challenge is to listen open and
objectively to a person with very different political or religious
beliefs. Can you do that? Really? It is wonderful if you can, but
relatively few people can listen, understand and appreciate such
messages which are very different from their own. If you cannot, it is
time to start because as a leader you will need to understand a wide
range of opinions on often-controversial subjects.
6. Empathy - not sympathy. Empathy is the "the action of
understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously
experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another...."
Sympathy is "having common feelings..."(Merrian Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, 10th edition) In other words as a good listener you need to
be able to understand the other person, you do not have to become like
Try to put yourself in the speaker's position so that you can see
what he or she is trying to get at.
7. Strategic pauses. Pauses can be used very effectively in
listening. For example, a pause at some points in the feedback can be
used to signal that you are carefully considering the message that you
are "thinking" about what was just said.
8. Do not interject. There is a great temptation at many times for
the listener to jump in and say in essence: "isn't this really what you
meant to say."
This carries the message: "I can say it better than you can," which
stifles any further messages from the speaker. Often, this process may
degenerate into a game of one-upmanship in which each person tries to
outdo the other and very little communication occurs.
9. Leave the channel open. A good listener always leaves open the
possibility of additional messages. A brief question or a nod will often
encourage additional communications.
10. You cannot listen while you are talking. This is very obvious,
but very frequently overlooked or ignored. An important question is why
are you talking: to gain attention to yourself? Or to communicate a
Remember, we hear only what we want to hear and remember only part of
what we heard. Good listening can improve both the content and quality
of what we hear and remember.
"We are given two ears, but only one mouth. This is because God knew
that listening was twice as hard as talking."
Today is the day to start developing those good listening habits and
you will become an effective and very popular leader.