Leadership Skill 1 Listening 

 July 13, 2020

By  Tamara Davidson

High level listening is a MAJOR skill for effective leadership. Most of us would like to think that we’re good listeners, and that we have the ability to deeply listen to others. But if I asked you, what are the skills required for effective listening? What gets in the way of listening? And what are we listening for? Would you know how to answer these questions? And more importantly, would you be able to engage in some high-level listening? In this blog I will share what listening is, and is not, what are we listening for, and what I think the most advanced listening skills are for effective leadership. This is the first in a series of Blogs highlighting many ​valuable leadership skills - stay tuned. 


​First lets define listening...

In the dictionary listening is defined as giving one’s attention to sound. Other definitions include; the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process; or a selective process of attending to, hearing, understanding, and remembering aural symbols.

I think a useful definition for listening in leadership is; A rather definite and deliberate ability to hear information, to analyse it, to recall it at a later time, and to draw conclusions from it. This is useful in that is shows the distinction between hearing and listening. Hearing is the process or function of the senses, where tones are received as stimuli. Listening on the other hand is the conscious, definite and deliberate act to give what we hear thoughtful attention and consideration.

What listening is not... 

Sometimes when trying to understand a skill it is helpful to identify what is it not. Some behaviours are obvious, for example; If you are interrupting or talking over the top of someone or getting distracted then I’m pretty sure the experts would agree, this is not listening. However, some behaviours are a little less obvious, such as formulating what we are going to say as the other person is talking, or assuming that we know what the other person is going to say.

Even more subtle is when we perceive that we “know” something, and so we assume that we have all the information we need. We shut down our ability to really listen because we’ve just unconsciously told our brain that we have the answer - no need to collect any further information, no need to really listen. 

What gets in the way of being an effective listener? 

The short answer is - we do. We get in our own way. Most often I see the biggest barrier to effective listening is our degree of presence. If we are not present, we become really ineffective listeners. When we are not present with the person we are communicating with, then we cannot really hear what the person is communicating.

Too often our minds are filled with noise - our own thoughts about what the other person is saying, our assumptions, our bias, we reference our own values and beliefs rather than hearing other perspectives. We might be thinking about what we need to do at 10am tomorrow morning or what we are doing on the weekend. This noise distorts and colors what we hear and gets in the way of truly understanding what is being said, and more importantly what is not being said. 

So what are we listening for?

I’ve worked with many leaders over the years and I’ve listened. What I’ve discovered is that great leaders are a lot like coaches, they understand the importance of high-quality listening. And it is not just the content they are listening for but also the structure. Here are three things you can do to take your listening skills to superpower status.

shutterstock 116233960 scaled - Leadership Skill 1 Listening

1. Be present.

Because deep listening requires presence, the more presence we have with another person the more we’re able to really hear what is being communicated. Successful communicators do not interact with their own assumptions when listening, they remain in “uptime” paying attention to the sensory based feedback that is available to them. When we are present, conversations start to slow down, we hear things we may have missed normally, and we find greater depth and connection in our interactions.

2. Listen for sensory based feedback.

Learn to listen with your eyes and your ears. Pay attention to eye contact, changes in body language, a person’s voice volume, tone and tempo, and to contradictions between verbal and non-verbal communication, and don’t just notice it, ask about it! E.g. “I can hear that your voice has become slower, what just happened?” This allows you to detect the other persons state of mind, body language and mental-emotional state, which often uncovers greater degrees of clarity in communication. Good listeners hear what’s not being said which is often just as important as what is being deliberately communicated.

3. Listen for linguistics. 

This is the ability to listen for and detect the language patterns that a person is using in their speech which may be creating all sorts of misunderstandings and conflict in communication. Again, this skill is difficult to do without a degree of presence. Great listeners don’t just hear content, they hear structure. A good listener is able to hear deletions, distortions and generalisations in language, how a person is mapping their experience through the use of their language.

When these deletions, distortions and generalisations are heard, a good communicator is able to ask high quality questions, to clean them up, ensuring communication is highly effective and that the people they lead are taking responsibility for their communication. E.g. A colleague might say “They always target me to do the trivial jobs” A leader might then ask… They? (deletion), who specifically? Always? (distortion) all the time? Target you? (generalisation) target you how specifically? Trivial jobs (generalisation) what are you referencing as the trivial jobs?

These kinds of questions slow down the communication, they are relevant, specific, and clarifying so that you can deal with reality rather than the deletion, distortion or generalisation, getting to the root cause of the issue quickly.

Did you know that meaning drives performance?

shutterstock 1027563358 scaled - Leadership Skill 1 Listening

Listening is a skill therefore it can be learned. We know what great listeners do to listen, so we’re able to model them. When modelling a behaviour, it is really important to understand the beliefs which are driving the behaviour. We know that meaning drives performance, the more meaningful something is, the more able we are to access greater peaks in our performance. So, what meanings do effective communicators hold that allow them to perform well? Here are our top three beliefs that effective listeners hold in mind when communicating…

  • I don't believe I have all the answers. 

Effective listeners know they are not always the smartest person in the room. This means they can remain open to new information, they are tentative in their approach, knowing that there are many other perspectives and truths out there. This allows the leader to stay curious and to ask high quality questions to gain high quality information.

  • I care deeply about people.  

Have you ever tried listening to someone that you have very little care for? It’s a tough gig. Effective communicators genuinely care about people which allows them to take the time to effectively communicate with them.

  • Multitasking does not support effective listening.  

Remaining present in communication is paramount. Effective leaders communicate this. They will not engage in a conversation which requires presence if they are not able to commit to being present. They maintain eye contact, they put all distractions aside and they give their undivided attention to what’s happening now in communication.

​Top 10 Checklist for Effective Listening...  

  • ​Be present.
  • ​Maintain eye contact. 
  • Judge content, not delivery.
  • Don't interrupt and be patient, allow for silences.
  • Hold back your points or counterpoints.
  • Resist distractions, noise and interruptions.
  • Pay attention to nonverbal information and ask about it.
  • Keep your mind open and curious.
  • ​Ask questions during pauses and give feedback.
  • Listen with empathy, seek to understand before you seek to be understood


Test your listening skills now… go and spend 10 minutes speaking with a colleague and pay attention to what you are hearing, are you able to maintain eye contact, ask questions, and hold back your points. If you would like to learn more about how to become a highly effective listener, contact Modo today to ask about our Evolved Communication Training Program. 

References: Meta Coaching – Dr Michael Hall.

Tamara Davidson

Tamara Davidson is an Executive Coach, Trainer and a Managing Director of Modo Coaching and Training, with over 20 years of experience leading large organisations. Tamara is a certified Meta-Coach, Master NLP practitioner and experienced Enneagram facilitator, and her passion is to facilitate people to discover and actualise their highest potentials in their personal and professional lives.

Tamara Davidson

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