Leadership Effectiveness – Listening Beyond Just Your Ears

Did you know that on average we spend 45% of our communications time throughout a day just listening to others[1]?  Compare that to speaking at 30%, reading at 16% and writing at a mere 9%. With almost half our time engaged in listening, the same study points to the fact we actually only retain 25% of what we’ve listened to – not just because we don’t absorb and understand what the speaker is saying but that we don’t do more to observe other cues.

When I started my coaching training, we had a section dedicated to the skill of listening. I’ve always considered myself more of a listener than a talker, so I assumed it would be a topic I would excel at. I soon realized that I was only focused on one aspect of listening; it’s not all about keeping your mouth shut and using your ears. There’s so much information one can “listen” to through your eyes (body language, facial expressions), heart (emotions, tension) and mind (your point of view, assumptions) – all of which contribute to you becoming a better listener.

It is not an easy task being fully present, curious, open to the message or perspective of others. We were given an exercise to listen “clean”. It involved filtering out all the ‘noise’ of our own judgements, assumptions, beliefs, or what we want to say next. Easier said than done, right? We come programmed with all of these things based on our life experience. In fact, many of us are paid to use our judgement, assumptions, and points of view to lead businesses. I have noticed some of my clients just waiting for the pause so they can jump in, or you start talking over the person. 

“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”       – Stephen Covey 


Listening is such a crucial skill being a leader:

  • strengthens relationships and shows people that you care
  • builds trust and connection which increases loyalty
  •  improves teamwork and collaboration which increases engagement and performance

Think about a time in which your leader didn’t take the opportunity to truly listen to what you had to say. How did you feel? Frustrated, ignored and unmotivated are often words people have associated with when they’ve felt like their leader has not truly paid attention to what they’ve communicated.

How can you avoid these listening pitfalls as a leader of an effective team and organization? Here are 3 tips to implement effective listening skills:

  1. Be present: Put your phones, laptops or any other distractions away, stop multi-tasking and just be present to the conversation. Be respectful of others. Look people in the eye. The number of presentations I’ve sat in where people are typing emails while another person is presenting is shocking – how is that behaviour a good use of anyone’s time? Stay in the moment, silence your inner dialogue and if you’re unclear about something they’ve said, ask the clarifying question when they stop so you can understand better. Don’t worry about what you need to say next.
  2. Be mindful: Well known American management consultant Peter Drucker once stated: “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Observe the speaker beyond just your ears: observe them with your eyes, heart, and mind; see, feel, and hear the whole being. Sometimes it’s even helpful to point out what you’re seeing, or feeling.  Tell the person, I am noticing you’re tensing up when you said x, do you want to tell me what that’s about?
  3. Be Curious: Be in a place of curiosity rather than playing the expert. Ask more questions than providing solutions. The better we listen, the better our understanding of the person and their situation and therefore can lead to asking more meaningful questions to shape the flow of the conversation. By asking questions and using that person’s own words in the questions, really makes the other feel heard.


Don’t be afraid of the silence.  Many leaders make it a point to fill any silences, or they feel obligated to respond to every comment. Sometimes that few seconds of the “awkward pause” is a true moment of reflection and the magical insight happens. People will say what’s really going on.

Effective listening is a skill that takes work. Next time you’re in a one-on-one, commit to listening “clean.” Start with just being aware of your presence during the conversation. If you really want to learn quickly, ask the person you’re working with to see if they’ve noticed or picked up on any of your listening cues.

Curious about how listening can improve your leadership skills? I’m always happy to connect and have more conversations about any comments or questions you might have on my thought pieces. Click here to send me a note!


[1]  From “Listening: Our Most Used Communications Skill.” Lee, Dick; Hatesohl, Delmar.