Thriving Together Series

Thriving Together Series: Listening for Leaders

By: Melissa Schreibstein, Director of Well-Being Programs, Center for the Advancement of Well-Being

“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.” – Doug Larson

There is a leadership skill that is vital for all leaders to learn, to help employees navigate change and strengthen well-being in organizations. Hear this: it’s listening.

Simply put, effective leaders are good listeners.

If you’re a leader who people tend to come to for advice, focusing on listening might seem counterintuitive. Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Advice Trap, notes that leaders often fall into the trap of giving advice when the better practice would be to listen. Yes, Stanier says it’s better to listen first, even when your advice is requested. Although we mean well, our advice is often not as helpful as we want it to be. Leaders who ask questions, and then listen fully to the responses, do more to help their people grow and learn.

In their 2018 HBR report titled The Power of Listening, Guy Itzchakov and Avraham N. (Avi) Kluger agreed. They reported that listening and asking questions can be a more effective tool to inspire positive change than the traditional feedback conversations between a manager and an employee. They suggest that leaders who develop listening skills are better equipped to help their employees to feel less anxious, more self-aware, and more willing to reflect.

David Burkus, Organizational Psychologist who recently published Lead from Anywhere: the Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams, explains that remote teams who outperform and thrive have three common characteristics: shared understanding, shared identity, and psychological safety. Each element is enhanced through high-quality listening from leaders and managers. This means that leaders in remote environments have to be intentional about developing a keen ability to listen, to stay curious, and to ask powerful questions.

Practicing Active Listening

Leaders should make listening a practice. You’ve probably heard of active listening, which involves fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively hearing the message of the speaker. Here are some keys ways to do so:

  • Work on listening with all senses and giving full attention to the speaker. Verbal and non-verbal messages such as maintaining appropriate eye contact, head nodding, mirroring but not mimicking facial expressions of emotion, saying “yes” or “mmm hmm,” and reflecting back what the speaker said are ways to show your interest and give in-the-moment feedback.
  • High-quality listening requires that leaders turn down their internal dialogue and turn up their external focus. Leaders who’ve developed their listening skills listen for a speaker’s words, as well as their expression and their emotion — both what is said and what is not said.
  • Set the right conditions for listening by limiting distractions. In conversations, staying focused on the person in front of you will be the difference between creating a strong, trusting relationship or eroding trust sentence-by-sentence. When it’s time to listen, leaders must be single-tasking only. It is impossible to multitask and be a fully present, mindful listener.
  • Leaders should also consider how to tap into their curiosity. In the HBR article, The Surprising Power of Questions, open-ended questions are descried as “wellsprings of innovation — which is often the result of finding the hidden, unexpected answer that no one has thought of before.” Leaders can practice asking powerful open-ended questions that begin with “what” or “how.” Also powerful, but to a lesser degree, are questions that begin with “when”, “where”, or “who.” The best way to know what question to ask is to fully, actively listen. It might be helpful to keep a list of powerful questions in an easy-to-see spot at your desk to refer to when getting more comfortable.

Listening fully is a gift you can give to another person. You might think of it as lending yourself to someone else for a short period of time. Today’s workforce demands leaders with empathy, kindness, and compassion, who seek to understand their employees. As a leader, get intentional about cultivating curiosity and listening fully, and you’ll find yourself building stronger connections and more effective teams.


Our center’s Leading to Well-Being certificate programs

“Why Listening Matters for Leaders” from Inside Higher Ed

“The Surprising Power of Questions” from Harvard Business Review

“The Power of Listening in Helping People Change” from Harvard Business Review

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