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Business Owners: Why It Pays To Improve Your Listening Skills

(3-5 minute read)

A true leader understands that although listening is one of the hardest skills to master, he or she must remain undeterred. In fact, listening is often used as a litmus test for leaders—many of whom have failed to make the passing grade, much to their surprise.

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “Leaders are often surprised to find out that their peers, direct reports and bosses think they don’t listen.” Further, “Leaders are usually shocked to learn that others see them as impatient, judgmental, arrogant or unaware.”

A leader’s failure to listen may not be intentional, but that doesn’t lessen the impact: poor relationships and unsatisfactory employee performance. Leaders can avoid these negative outcomes by understanding their own listening habits and engaging in active-empathetic listening.

Understanding Your Listening Habits

To know why your listening skills aren’t up to par, you will need to assess your own listening habits. The pivotal question is: are you a listener who empathizes with or tries to understand others’ perspectives? Or are you more concerned with speaking than listening?

According an article published by the Harvard Business Review, personality traits may play a role in our listening habits. For example, people who are extroverted and conversational tend to be more talkative. They are strong, fiery and passionate, but are often described by their subordinates and teammates as bad listeners.

A person’s upbringing can affect their listening abilities. For example, some people learned to be good listeners from early in life while others were taught that it’s more important to speak up than to listen.

Becoming an Active-Empathetic Listener

According to a study published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, active-empathetic listening was first “defined in the context of product sales as a form of listening practiced by salespeople in which traditional listening is combined with empathy to achieve a higher form of listening.” Active-empathetic listening is highly effective because it blends ability and willingness to listen with empathy—which is essential to great leadership.

The first step of active-empathetic listening requires detecting all the verbal and nonverbal clues of the speaker, including tone, facial expressions and body language. Rather than simply hearing the speaker, the leader uses all of his senses to absorb everything being said—this includes not just what the speaker is saying but also what they are not saying.

Active-empathetic listening also requires processing, which involves comprehending the meaning of the message and tracking key points of the conversation. Being able to summarize key themes of the communication assures the speaker that you are paying attention and have a solid grasp of what was said.

The third step of active-empathetic listening is responding, which is about letting the speaker know that the message has been received and encouraging the communication to continue. Verbal responses may include oral acknowledgements, deep/probing questions, and paraphrasing for clarification. Non-verbal responses may take the form of eye contact, head nods, and facial expressions that signify engagement in the conversation.

To be an active-empathetic listener, the leader must also:

  • Avoid distractions. When a colleague or subordinate is speaking to you give them your full attention. Do not accept phone calls, surf the web or partake in anything that indicates you’re not paying attention.
  • Suspend judgment. Poor listeners can’t wait to sell their point, and are judgmental in their haste. Good listeners withhold criticism until they fully understand the situation and are open to new ideas, perspectives and possibilities.
  • Introduce your ideas, feelings and suggestions after gaining a clear view of the speaker’s perspective. As noted by the Center for Creative Leadership, “Active listening is first about understanding the other person, then about being understood”.

The above suggestions will not only improve your listening skills but also make you a better leader.




January 17, 2019




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