Lead by Listening

Facing an Unhappy Team? Lead by Listening

When we talk about the qualities of a leader, we often refer to managerial, planning, and oratory skills. While these abilities are indispensable, we often forget the secret magic ingredient — listening.

Leaders are constantly engaging with their team and when clear communication is essential in the workplace, good listening skills naturally come with it. While you may hear out your team’s concerns, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are listening to them. There’s a fine line between hearing and listening where the former just perceives sounds while the latter gives full attention and consideration to the speaker.

In his book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, Dale Carnegie said, “to be interesting, be interested”. Listening carefully to one another is how we create strong bonds and trust building in teams. We all enjoy conversations where we feel heard and valued. Unless you connect with people’s experiences and make them feel heard, it’s hard to influence others.

Research has shown that managers who listen well do better as leaders and generate more trust, instil high job satisfaction and enhance their team’s creativity. A team’s productivity rises when the members feel heard and valued.

A recent study found that nearly half of employees surveyed had quit because of a bad manager, and almost two-thirds believed their manager lacked proper managerial training. Looking deeper, most employees complained about their managers not paying attention or overlooking their inputs for projects.

If lending an attentive ear to others has so many advantages, why is it not a common practice? Here are some possible challenges we face when trying to listen.

The volatility of the mind

We think four times faster than a person can speak, which means we only need 25% of our mental capacity to hear the content of the message. The remaining 75% of our mind continues wandering, making us jump to conclusions before the speaker has shared their side of the story. Listening without jumping to conclusions requires mindful practice and patience that may not come naturally to some of us.

External distractions

A lot of the disagreements we have tend to stem from a lack of attention when communicating. With leaders, this can be even more challenging when they have so much on their plate. When you’re distracted by other things, it’s hard to completely devote your focus to listening to someone else. Especially when handling conflicts in the workplace, your team requires you to be attentive to their concerns and neglecting them can affect the psychological safety of the workplace.

How to become a better listener?

The quality of your relationships is closely linked to your ability to listen to them. Listening requires a deeper understanding to code people’s words and dissect the true message behind them.

Listening requires a lot of self-control and emotional intelligence. It can be difficult to resist the temptation to speak your mind while also directing all your energy into being attentive. Truly listening requires control of your mind to put your agendas and assumptions away.

Attention is the sincerest form of flattery and the currency of leadership. Building trust in teams requires genuine connections and listening helps build these relationships to make handling conflicts easier.

Here are 5 simple yet impactful tips you can use to strengthen your listening muscle for better conversational skills.

The All or None rule

The speaker’s intended message often does not translate to what the listener hears. When you are listening to someone, put aside your electronic devices and remove any distractions. Your only focus should be the speaker and the message they are trying to communicate. If you can’t channel your attention to their message, reschedule the conversation to a less busy time. Listening is a lot like a muscle. To channel all of your attention to listening to a person requires persistent effort, training, and the will to listen.

Do not judge

Humans are judgmental beings. All of us do it whether it’s consciously or subconsciously. We make judgements immediately even when it’s our first time meeting someone. This creates a bias in our minds, making neutral conversations difficult. People are more likely to open up in a no-judgement zone.

When communicating with someone, be mindful of the biases you’ve made in your head and put them aside. Before reaching a conclusion, ask yourself if you are truly being objective about the person and situation. Building trust in teams will require a leader that is empathetic and compassionate despite any preconceived notions you may have.

INSIDER INFO: flowprofiler® covers emotional intelligence in the workplace to build empathy in your members for high performing teams.

Interruptions and Questions

We’ve always been taught that it’s rude to interrupt someone when they’re speaking. Improving listening skills forces us to control our impulsive reactions. Even if you have an idea that you’d like to share or something you need to clarify, it’s best not to interrupt the speaker in the middle of their sentence.

Interruptions may seem like you are disagreeing or showing superiority and degrading the views of others. Instead of building trust, interrupting your team members could possibly lead to conflicts.

Asking questions is not wrong but you should do it at the right time. Wait for the speaker to pause instead of jumping in between the conversation and breaking their flow. Asking questions assures the speaker that they have your attention.

However, make sure you don’t lead the speaker astray with your questions. This is something that disrupts a lot of conversations as the focus shifts from one to another in just a matter of seconds. Your questions should concentrate on getting a better understanding of the speaker’s message.

Nonverbal Cues

Words make up only a small fraction of the message we try to convey. The rest is formed by posture, eye contact, expressions and other nonverbal cues. To improve communication, your speaker also has to visually connect with you. Our facial expressions and body language can tell a lot about our emotions and thoughts and this is no different as a listener. Maintaining a good posture, eye contact, and nodding are actions that show you are listening to make the speaker more comfortable with sharing their thoughts.

Follow up

Beyond providing a listening ear, follow up with them. Checking up on your team’s progress after the initial conversation shows genuine care for them. A team that feels like their leader is looking out for them are more likely to have the motivation and drive when collaborating in teams.

Your motive to follow up should be of genuine concern and not forced. However, incessant follow-ups could also lead to your team feeling uncomfortable. Be aware of your member’s behaviours and know where to draw the line. Give them the assurance that they have your support but don’t suffocate them with constant follow-ups.

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
~ Epictetus, Greek philosopher

Listening Helps People Change

In a 1952 Harvard Business Review paper, Carl Rogers advocated listening as an avenue for self-change. As leaders, improving the psychological safety of the workplace to boost collaboration is fundamental, and listening does just that. When your team feels that you as a listener are empathetic and attentive towards them, they can address their emotions more freely.

Listening is powerful as it broadens the scope of self-realisation in those you communicate with. Better listeners motivate their team and clients to reflect and see both sides of an argument. They delve into the positives and negatives to view situations more objectively. Leaders who are good listeners can manage conflicts without being defensive about themselves or their views.

What makes others listen to you?

We’ve talked about how improving listening skills and building trust in teams come hand-in-hand but being an influential leader also requires people listening to you. As leaders, you can’t expect your team to listen to you only because you hold a higher position. Leaders that equip themselves with effective communication skills to bring their point across are more likely to get undivided attention from those around them.

Here are three tips you can use to make others listen to you.

Be slow and clear

We may trip over our words when we’re nervous or have too much on our minds. Unfortunately, this makes us unclear to our listeners so being mindful of your pacing can help others understand you better. For better conversational skills, take pauses after a few sentences to allow your listener to digest each point before jumping to another topic. Listening is not a skill everyone naturally has, so craft your message in a way that also gets the attention of impatient listeners.

Engaging through Analogies

You may find yourself having to explain complex ideas to your clients and team members and if not executed well, you won’t be able to hold the attention of others. Analogies are a great way to bring complicated subjects across into digestible chunks that are easily understood. Analogies compare two ideas to show their similarities. For example, “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get” is a famous analogy from the film Forrest Gump. It uses the idea of a box of chocolates to show how life is full of surprises. Similarly, you can use a simpler idea and relate it to a complex topic for easier understanding.

Use hand gestures and expression

Communication is not just about verbal stimulation. To capture the attention of your audience, you also have to be visually gripping. Gesturing and making specific facial expressions to emphasise your point can make you more memorable. For example, when you’re listing numbered points, use your fingers to help your audience follow along with you. When you’re iterating a particularly important point, use your hands to show emphasis and even raise your eyebrows to connect with your listeners.

INSIDER INFO: Besides improving listening skills, our trust building workshop equips you with the communication techniques that get your team to listen and resolve conflicts with ease. 

Hearing only requires the ears but listening is a full-body experience. Especially in these confusing times, teams need to feel like they’re being heard. Listening is a great way to help build these strong and meaningful relationships to get through the chaos and unpredictability of today’s world.


1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/relationship-and-trauma-insights/202201/mindfully-listen-3-potent-ways-connect-and-influence
2. https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-power-of-listening-in-helping-people-change?utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=hbr&utm_source=linkedin&tpcc=orgsocial_edit
3. https://www.techinasia.com/listens-jack-ma-talks-rich
4. https://hbr.org/2017/05/how-to-improve-your-sales-skills-even-if-youre-not-a-salesperson
5. Photo by Dominik Kempf on Unsplash

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