When I facilitate leadership training, one of the most common questions I’m asked is what I think is the most important skill leaders can learn. Although I’m not a fan of prescribing cut-and-dried approaches to leadership, if I had to pick just one it would be this: listening.

“Why listening?” you ask? Read on to find out why listening is the most important skill leaders can learn and some principles you can use to improve your listening.

The Power of Listening

Listening is powerful. Take a moment and recall a time when someone gave you their undivided attention and really listened to you? They weren’t on their phone. They weren’t multi-tasking. They didn’t appear to be nodding in the right places and doing rote paraphrasing. They were completely present with you, appearing to hang on every word you said. Remember how you felt?

If you’re like most people I know, you probably felt heard. Seen. Appreciated. Like you mattered to that person. Like you walked away feeling refreshed, clear, perhaps lighter. As if that weren’t enough of a reason why I believe listening is the most important skill leaders can use, consider some common potential consequences of not listening:

  • Missing important communications that cause you to be unprepared
  • Improperly following directions that result in having to do re-work
  • Alienating key stakeholders that leads to broken trust
  • Being unclear around expectations that creates confusion, false assumptions, and mistakes
  • Not understanding stakeholder needs that leave behind missed opportunities
  • Being on a different page from your team so that everyone goes in different directions and/or does redundant work

The Impact of Not Listening

The cost of these consequences can be quite severe. Not listening can result in irreparable broken trust, significant financial loss, wasted time and energy, and downright chaos. Therefore, it’s crucial to not only learn to be a good listener, but a great listener.

Recently I was reminded of the consequences of not listening when hearing an all-too-familiar story of what happens when leaders don’t listen. In this case, a senior leader was asked to share her perceptions and observations of the workforce. After sharing them, leadership responded by saying, “that’s not what we see” and proceeded to tell her why she was wrong. You can imagine how much trust this broke and lack of respect this person left with as a result of this conversation.

Unfortunately, this story isn’t unique. It’s impactful enough when leaders just don’t listen – it’s even more impactful when they seek subjective information and then argue about it. The impact of not listening doesn’t just stop there. When leadership doesn’t listen to stakeholders, they miss out on vital information and opportunities for growth. This is especially ironic given that, in my experience, stakeholders have a much more accurate sense of reality than leadership because they engage with the product or customer every day. The information they need is right at their fingertips – and they overlook it because they don’t want to listen.

Learning to Listen

There are many books and articles out there on how to be a better listener. Rather than retread the same territory, here are four key principles to keep in mind that will immediately improve your listening:

  1. Set a strong intention
    Choice is always a fundamental component of change. To be a better listener, you first have to choose to be a better listener. When someone is speaking, start by setting a strong intention to fully listen to what is being said.
    Key Question: How do I want to listen in this conversation?
  2. Be curious
    When you’re listening to someone, are you already thinking you know what they’re going to say, that they’re not going to say anything important, or judging them? Consider the metaphor of a cup. If the cup is full, there is no capacity for more. When you come with an empty cup, there is space to be filled. Cultivate curiosity by listening with an empty cup and asking questions to learn more.
    Key Question: What can I learn from this conversation or about this person?
  3. Care
    OK – so you might not really care all that much about the person or the conversation. Truth be told, it’s unreasonable to expect that we always will. However, what you should at least care about are the potential consequences of not listening. Refer to the list above and notice the cost of not caring. That said, not caring is often a symptom of engaging with a full cup. Instead of casually dismissing someone, empty your cup, see the humanity in the person, and look for something to care about.
    Key Question: What might be important about this conversation?
  4. Stay present
    Does your mind wander when you listen? Are you judging the person? Is your response already being formulated before the person even finishes their thought? Staying present starts with being aware. Notice what is keeping you from being present so you can start to address and change it.
    Key Question: What am I focusing on instead of listening, and what can I focus on instead to listen better?