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  • Writer's pictureJill Hauwiller

Listening is a Leadership Competency

Are you a good leader? Are you a good listener? What kind of listening do you do? Depending on who you ask or what you read, there are anywhere from three to seven levels of listening. One model that I have found easy to use with leaders is from Better Manager. In this framework, there are three levels of listening:

  • Level 1: Self-focused — This can range from not listening to listening to respond or waiting to talk.

  • Level 2: Speaker-focused — At this level, you are paying attention to what the person is saying and listening for meaning.

  • Level 3: Energy-focused — At this level, you have tuned in not only to what the person is saying, but to what they aren’t saying. You are watching their body language and other non-verbal cues.

The first level of this listening ladder is inwardly focused. The listener is making it about themselves, intentionally or unintentionally. When operating at the highest level of listening, the listener is making space for the person that is sharing. In this scenario, the person speaking feels heard and seen. The listener is responding to the speaker’s energy. In the language of emotional intelligence, we call this active listening.

In my work coaching leaders, there is often a disconnect between how well leaders think they listen and the feedback they receive through assessments as part of the coaching process or their organization’s employee engagement survey. In many ways, this gap is not the leader’s fault. It can be the result of an overload of work, personal or cultural expectations of having all the answers when in a leadership role, or a lack of familiarity with how to listen effectively.

If, as a leader, you often find yourself in advice-giving mode when someone comes to you with an idea or problem, there are several things you can do to be a better listener. First, pause and pay attention. Set aside your phone, turn away from your laptop, and focus on the person speaking. Second, after the person has shared what they wanted, uninterrupted, ask them what types of help they are looking for. Let their responses to this question guide your response. If they respond that they simply wanted space to share their idea or concern, resist the temptation to offer advice. Your goal in this scenario is to help the person feel heard.

The coaching process has been constructive for leaders who I work with to practice their listening skills. In my coaching practice, I worked with a leader in the financial services industry who needed to improve his listening skills and spend more time listening to be effective in his role and to continue to advance professionally. One strategy that worked for him as he developed his listening skills was to practice speaking last. This allowed his team to share ideas and solve problems without turning to him for all of the answers. He could then affirm, expand or redirect their work, but by listening more he was also giving the team a chance to grow. It allowed him to focus on strategic issues, which is what his leaders wanted to see from him, and delegate more successfully to his team because he understood their interests and strengths.

Active listening can transform professional and personal relationships. When people feel heard, they also feel understood and this is one of the first steps toward empathetic leadership. In the workplace, this can lead to more innovation and earlier sharing of concerns because there is a high level of psychological safety. Empathetic leaders have stronger relationships with their teams leading to improved team dynamics and organizational outcomes.

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