Improve Your Listening to Gain Better Insights as a Leader

July 7, 2017

Listening as a leader

There’s a bevy of resources to help leaders speak better. It’s rare to find leaders who haven’t gone through some kind of presentation training on their way to their positions.

And yet, speaking is only half of the communication process. It’s actually the other half—listening—that sparks leadership insights. Listening well allows us to learn more, expand our perspective, and develop novel approaches.

Listening intently to another person creates a virtuous circle. One person’s listening opens up another’s ability to think and process, which leads to ideas from both parties.

In the research for my new book, one clear finding was that we are most often inspired from being in conversation with others. In fact, listening was the most cited inspirational behavior in research that I commissioned with the Harris Poll.

So if we want more inspired ideas, we need to work on our listening—and nearly everyone needs the work. The further we go in our careers, the greater the importance. According to research, “hourly employees may spend 30 percent of their time listening, while managers often spend 60 percent, and executives 75 percent or more.”

Improving your listening doesn’t have to be an abstract or complicated exercise. We can make subtle shifts in how we listen that dramatically enhance the information that we obtain. If you want to gather more insights, try these shifts:

Shift No. 1: From listening for facts to listening for the whole person

A common way that we listen is to understand the facts. For those of us who like to think systematically and logically, the facts help us to frame up the situation.

When we home in on the facts, though, we push the person talking into the background. We miss the larger picture about how that person relates to the situation, and how feelings and personalities may impact it.

We’re a better listener if we expand our focus to take in the whole person in front of us. We discuss the facts, but we also listen for how that person explains the situation, what his or her body language is telling us, and the person’s emotional state and thought processes.

Shift No. 2: From listening for text to listening for text and subtext

In any conversation, there’s both the text of the words spoken and the subtext that’s unspoken.

Conversations where we don’t name the “elephant in the room” or the cultural and contextual factors that are relevant are superficial and unfulfilling. They don’t create learning, open us up to new information, or change anything.

To move from listening for text to also listening for subtext means paying attention to the clues the other person gives, picking them up, and probing further. It means asking for more understanding and about the emotions behind the issue. Subtext also includes the history around the conversation, which can be a significant factor.

Shift No. 3: From listening to judge to listening out of curiosity

We’re all judgmental, and it’s not all bad. Being able to assess our environments and draw swift conclusions allows us to survive and thrive. But with this type of listening, we’re most likely to heighten our biases and confirm what we already think.

To listen out of curiosity, we have to come in with an empty-glass mentality and allow it to be filled. We get and stay interested, asking questions out of curiosity about what the other person shows us and expresses, rather than directing the conversation to our own agenda. We allow ourselves to learn as we go, and when we do that, we learn more than we ever could have predicted.

To learn more about leadership communication, listen to Kristi Hedges’s podcast with the AMA Edgewise series.


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Team leaders need to develop the competencies of executive leadership–including effective communication, the strategic elements of leading others, an adaptable leadership style, and much more.

About The Author

Kristi Hedges is the author of The Inspiration Code: How the Best Leaders Energize People Every Day (AMACOM, 2017). As principal of The Hedges Company, she is a leadership coach who specializes in executive communications. Her clients span the Fortune 500, government, nonprofits, and privately held businesses. An in-demand speaker, Hedges writes for and has been featured in the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and Huffington Post and on CNBC, BBC, and more. She also is the author of The Power of Presence.


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