Career Advice

9 Tips to Listen Like a True Leader

Young businesswoman and man having a conversation in restaurant

If you’re a manager, it helps to be a good talker. But great communication is as much about hearing others as it is about getting heard yourself. When you really listen well, you’ll be able to engage more deeply with your team, colleagues, and customers. You’ll help advance their thinking. And you’ll open yourself up to others’ wisdom, too.

These tips generally go from basic to next level. Which should you be working on?

1. For planned conversations, find a good time and location so participants can feel comfortable and focused.

Environment is more important than you may think in getting a good conversation off the ground. Consider the subject matter and timing of the conversation to determine such factors as:

  • The level of privacy you’ll want. If the topic is sensitive or complex enough to require privacy, then book a quiet room ahead of time or head offsite to a subdued location. If the conversation might run long, pick a place where you won’t be interrupted.
  • How you’ll sit (or stand, or walk) in relation to each other. For more formal conversations, you might sit across from others at a desk or conference table. In 1-on-1 situations, sitting side-by-side sets a more collaborative, “we’re in this together” tone. Or, to spur creativity, you could stand and draw at a whiteboard or break out of your normal surroundings and go for a walk.
  • Whether you or other participants are busy, stressed, or will be rushing from another meeting. If your calendar is packed tight, could you end your previous meeting early or delay this one by 15 minutes so you can clear your head and make room for what you’re about to hear? If there’s an important looming deadline, could the conversation wait?

2. Show that you’re paying attention with eye contact and your body language.

Close your laptop. Turn your phone over. Put down your sandwich. You get to do only one thing with this time — engage in the conversation.

Eye contact is a sure way to demonstrate warmth and attention, especially in a world where so many people are constantly distracted by technology. How much eye contact is too much? That depends on your situation and cultural norms. If you feel like you’re entering staring territory (uncomfortable for all), try periodically taking breaks by shifting your gaze to the speaker’s hands or elsewhere in the room as you process what you’re hearing. For more see Maintain optimal eye contact.

As for the rest of your body, avoid fidgeting and other distracting mannerisms. Instead, send signals that you’re following along and fully participating by turning to face the speaker or even leaning toward him or her, nodding, and showing appropriate facial expressions (for example, smiling to show encouragement and keeping a neutral expression for a difficult or emotional point to avoid appearing impatient or judgmental).

And if you do take notes, explain why your attention is shifting. For example, at the start you could say, “I’m planning to take some notes, so if I’m looking at my laptop, it’s only because I want to make sure that I’m getting down key points.”

3. Don’t interrupt with your own thoughts and solutions. Instead, focus on absorbing and understanding what’s being said.

It’s easy for well-intentioned managers to default to problem-solving mode in an attempt to be helpful and efficient. When you jump in with answers, though, you rob others of the chance to fully express themselves and flex their own problem-solving skills. Instead of rushing to judgment or thinking of how you’re going to respond when someone else speaks, try to zero in on people’s actual words and what they really mean.

4. Use silence or brief prompts to encourage the speaker to keep going and complete his or her thought.

Complete thoughts rarely tumble out of people perfectly formed, especially when they’re talking about complex, difficult, or emotional issues. Instead of rushing to fill the void when someone else stops talking, try silence (waiting as long as 10 seconds before prompting) or a well placed “Mm hmm” or “Tell me more” to keep the person driving the conversation.

For example:

You: How’s your progress on the Columbia planning project?

Direct report: Well, we hit a snag yesterday …

You: Tell me more.

Direct report: I’m having trouble reaching the client …

You: How so?

Direct report: He isn’t responding to emails.

You: [silence and nodding]

Direct report: That’s not really so uncommon for him, though. And I know he’s busy right now with quarterly reviews. Last time, I ended up having to pick up the phone and call.

5. After the speaker has fully expressed the thought, paraphrase back what you’ve heard to ensure you’re understanding correctly.

Start with phrases like:

      • “So what I’m hearing is …”
      • “It sounds as if …”
      • “If I’m understanding you correctly, you …

And follow up with “Do I have that right?” so the other person has the opportunity to respond, “Yes, that’s it!” or “Actually, that’s not what I meant,” and further clarify. For more see Paraphrase back what you’ve heard to improve understanding.

6. Consider the others’ tone and body language as part of the messages they’re trying to convey — and calibrate your responses accordingly.

Is your usually open and friendly peer crossing her arms? Is your normally quiet direct report talking rapidly? When you notice nonverbal cues that break from someone’s normal pattern, they’re likely meaningful signals about the person’s attitude toward the subject that may go otherwise unspoken.

You can use this vital information to calibrate your responses in a way that can show understanding and encourage even more sharing.

For example, if the person has crossed arms or isn’t making usual eye contact, you might respond with:

“It seems like this is difficult to talk about. I appreciate your bringing it up to me.”

Or, if someone is talking rapidly and sharing new ideas:

“It sounds like you’re really excited about this project. Tell me more about why.”

Or, if something you’ve said causes someone to clam up, you could narrate your observation as a way to elicit a response:

“You seem quieter since I mentioned involving Emily in this project. How does what I said sit with you?”

For more, see This week, observe and respond to others’ body language.

7. When appropriate, use validating responses in a way that incorporates what you know about the person’s values and circumstances.

Few things are as gratifying in human exchanges as those rare moments when another person not only understands your true feelings, but acknowledges and articulates them — maybe even better than you could have yourself. Why not aim to be that person in conversations with your team members and colleagues?

For example, let’s say a conscientious direct report tells you that she’s worked hard on a successful project. You can show validation on a much more individual level by responding with language like, “I know how important it is to you to hit deadlines. It sounds like your ability to prioritize really helped lead to success in this instance,” than if you were to say simply, “Yeah, good job prioritizing.”

Or, for an empathetic response when things don’t go as planned: “It sounds like you’ve been doing all you can. Sometimes doing things for the first time just takes longer. I know that can be frustrating, especially for someone like you who is used to hitting every deadline.”

8. Listen with an ear for how people’s ideas and opinions overlap and diverge.

In most exchanges, people simply react to the latest comment — a logical and often effective approach. But next-level listeners also have a knack for processing what was just said in relation to information said earlier, either in the current conversation or even on previous occasions.

This ability to hear and make these connections — then articulate them — can have a magical effect. It can help people put their thoughts in context and decide what to do next. For example:

“DeShawn, I’ve heard you say before that this client is impatient with sales tactics, but it seems like now you’re suggesting offering him an incentive of free features. How has your thinking changed on this?”


“What I’m hearing is that people think we still have work to do on the proposal. Vicky, you seem concerned about cost. Hector still has questions about the target market. Stefan, you said your last team did something similar, but used a more integrated approach. How about we talk through people’s ideas for next steps?”

One tip to help build this skill: Take good notes. Don’t try to write down everything people say. Instead, summarize and write down main ideas. Then, leave some space beneath each main point to add in bulleted subpoints. Seeing all of the main points in one place can help you see connections.

9. Use open-ended follow-up questions to expand people’s thinking on an issue.

There can be a coaching component to good listening, where you help others explore what’s going on and work toward solutions. Try probing with well-timed, open-ended questions that not only reflect what you’ve just heard, but prompt people to go deeper:

Your peer: “My team has never missed a quarterly goal before — I hope this doesn’t kill everyone’s morale.”

You: “That sounds tough. What’s been the team’s biggest setback up to this point?”

Your peer: “Hmm … I guess maybe it was when we went through the reorg last year. That threw everyone for a loop, even though our team wasn’t impacted directly.”

You: “What kinds of things did you do to lead them through that?”

Your peer: “Well, I held some additional 1-on-1s, plus we talked through it a lot in team meetings. We had to totally redo some of our team processes after the marketing group we’d been working with got eliminated.

You: “And how did they respond?”

Your peer: Some people really stepped up, and most of them actually handled it OK. Now that I think about this missed goal, maybe I can over-communicate again, and lean on those team members who were a rock during the reorg — they’ll set a good example for the others.”

You: “Sounds like a good plan. What do you think you’ll need to do differently?”

Your peer: “Yeah. Hmm. I’ll definitely have to manage my boss’s expectations. That’ll be tricky. Mind if I block off a lunch so I can try out some practice language on you?”

Use these kinds of questions well, and the person will leave your conversation with new ideas and next steps. For more, see How to coach someone.


This article was originally published on Jhana. Republished with permission.

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