The Value of Listening

Read this article, which describes how good leaders listen to their employees and colleagues in empathic ways.

Recent studies have identified communication skills as critical for job success. Two sessions held at the Educause 2014 Annual Conference identified soft skills, including communication, as necessary in today's IT workforce. Each Educause Institute Program has sessions on communication. So we can most likely agree that communication is key for success both for IT leaders and for IT staff.

As leaders, we train our staff (or we should) on the proper communication methods used at our respective institutions. Our job ads and position descriptions are often peppered with the phrase strong communication skills, both written and verbal. But do we ever consider that an integral part of communication is listening? Do we seek that skill in potential employees or develop it in our staff and ourselves? The business and professional literature is replete with references to listening as being an essential leadership skill. However, we seem to spend a lot more time talking than listening.

Leaders and managers are often characterized by and rewarded for their strong opinions, decisiveness, and ability to make points and win influence. Though not often highlighted, an equally important skill is the ability to step back and listen – to staff, to clients, to colleagues, and to others in general. Why?

Let's start by looking at a few examples.

How many times has the following happened to you? You meet with your boss or your colleague, and you find that the person is not listening to you. Instead, he/she is interrupting just as you begin to explain a problem or ask a question – bombarding you with questions or providing solutions without ever hearing your complete analysis or possible solution or without even understanding what your question is about. Or the person is looking at a smartphone, a computer, a watch, some papers, or some other distraction and is not even looking at you as you speak.

How did this make you feel? When it has happened to me, I have had a variety of emotions that include feeling not valued and also confused, misunderstood, angry. I am sure you have experienced these and a range of other reactions.

Now think (and be honest with yourself): how many times have you done this same thing to a member of your staff? Ouch, that one hurts, no?

Next, think about a time when you have been in a meeting and your boss or colleague has given you undivided attention. The person lets you complete your thoughts (even if these are not fully formed and finalized) and listens to your ideas, insights, and analyses. The person looks at you as you speak, and he/she asks thoughtful and interesting follow-up questions. How do you feel now? For me, I feel valued, interested, curious to learn more about the topic or issue that I may have brought to the table. I feel that there is a real dialogue occurring. In other words, I feel engaged in a conversation and motivated to do my work even if the other person does not necessarily agree with what I have said. Plus, I have a lot more respect for that person.


Why It is Important to Listen

Listening is especially important if you are new to management, but it is a good skill for all managers. Your role requires that you are decisive, yes, but staff are watching you to see if you are also honest and authentic and if you give credit where it is due, and a lot of that comes from listening to them – their concerns, ideas, questions, confusion. The same goes for listening to your colleagues.

As managers and leaders grow in their careers, they often become more accustomed to speaking and making decisions in a fast-paced, time-starved workplace. Listening takes time. It can be viewed as inefficient, and it certainly can derail your already tight schedule, but the rewards are myriad. Besides being well worth your time to listen to your staff, listening also makes you a better leader. Truly great leaders are superb listeners. Think of those leaders you admire, and I bet you'll discover that they're good listeners.

While our best leaders are strategic and proactive, they are also intuitive, empathetic listeners. They are able to read between the lines to understand what is not being said. Seeking to understand before speaking is the hallmark of an inspired leader and a skilled communicator. Engaging in meaningful conversation that employs active listening will get you further in your career than merely talking to be heard or "staying on message". Leaders who act before they understand likely do not achieve the results they were looking for, and often they alienate the staff.

Listening not only improves your own leadership but also gains your staff's commitment. You earn their trust – they learn to trust you and you them, and that is powerful. What you convey by listening is your respect for them. Everyone wants to be heard, and we all want to be respected. Listening is a critical step in building that trust and rapport. So if you want high performances from your staff, you need to listen to them (a lot) and respond to them. They will become fully committed and totally motivated to do their very best work.


What Characterizes a Poor Listener?

Poor listeners are often described in the following ways: "He's not really interested in what I have to say", or "She's already made up her mind; why does she bother to ask our opinion?" You do not want to be that person.

Many managers take for granted their ability to listen to others, and they are often surprised to find out that their staff, peers, or bosses think they do not listen. Sometimes they are genuinely shocked to learn that others see them as impatient, judgmental, arrogant, or unaware. According to research done at the Center for Creative Leadership, the impact of poor listening is far-reaching. If not corrected, poor listening skills will translate into poor relationships and poor employee performance.


How Can You Improve Your Listening Skills?

  1. Stop talking! Suppress the inclination to formulate your response or think about what you are going to say next when someone else is speaking.
  2. Do not give advice too soon. Many leaders, because of their expertise, feel compelled to offer a solution to a problem right away. Wait until the person has fully explained his or her perspective.
  3. Be curious about what the person has to say. Try to imagine that person's point of view. It is an opportunity to learn something new or gain an alternative perspective. It can provide context, which helps you make sense of a situation and lead to a better decision.
  4. Do not multitask; focus solely on the speaker.
  5. Ask questions to ensure you understand before moving on to the next topic.
  6. Paraphrase what you are hearing and then ask if you have gotten it right.
  7. Listen with an open mind, not for what you want to hear.
  8. Look for nonverbal cues. Pay attention to what might not be said. People say as much (if not more) with their body language and facial expressions as they do with their verbal communication.
  9. Do not listen only to those who agree with you; instead, actively seek out dissenting opinions and thoughts. Listen to those who confront you, challenge you, stretch you, and develop you.
  10. Acknowledge the contributions of those who contribute energy, ideas, actions, or results. Few things go as far in building goodwill as recognizing others.



Listening well is one of the most powerful and, yes, efficient skills that a good manager and leader can master. But it can be hard to do. Listening is crucial to forming a complete picture of a situation. Without this understanding, we can easily waste everyone's time by solving the wrong problem or by addressing only a symptom, not the underlying cause.

Your staff, colleagues, and others feel valued when you listened to them. You will make better, faster decisions, and you will send the message that we are all in this together. The goal of listening is to better understand where someone is coming from, to get the information you need to take the next step or make a decision, and to be that better manager or leader. One of the best compliments you can be paid is to be known as a good listener.

Source: Joan Cheverie,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.

Last modified: Thursday, January 21, 2021, 3:24 PM