Surprisingly, when team members are asked about things that are important to them in a great leader “listening” is often mentioned as being a key element. Hearing what someone is saying is a passive activity. Active listening, on the other hand, requires intention (to understand) and emotional intelligence skills, which are not always innate.

Being attuned to the spoken and unspoken concerns of others demonstrates an openness to their views, a willingness to engage ideas different from ours, and honors the courage of others to express divergent perspectives.

The Challenge

Here are some things that make active listening difficult:

  • Our own stream of thoughts and judgments running through our heads
  • Feeling like we are going to have to give an answer immediately
  • Feeling defensive or triggered
  • Fear of not knowing
  • Being distracted (so many things going on at once)
  • Overwhelm
  • Not valuing the person or the information

Why this skill matters


In a recent survey by Georgetown University of nearly 20,000 employees worldwide, respondents ranked respect as the most important leadership behavior. When humans feel really heard they also feel respected. Note: Agreement is not a necessary component of feeling heard. Understanding is the key component.

Communication and outcomes increase

Understanding someone’s thoughts and or emotions are at the core of communication. In any relationship, the connection comes through communication.


When people are truly understood they feel cared for. Team members want to work for leaders who care about them.


The recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable, even if you disagree with them. This provides a path for connection in a situation that might otherwise turn into a confrontation.


  • Lean in, uncross arms, make some eye contact
  • Ask meaningful questions
  • Repeat key points and ask if you “have it right”
  • Offer a next step (follow up) if appropriate – mark your calendar so that you do not forget to respond, get back with an answer or otherwise complete the loop
  • Be present – others will sense if your mind is elsewhere – take your time in responding- sometimes you will need to make an “appointment” to follow up with them
  • Practice: none of this comes naturally or automatically.

Keep this sheet handy and refer to it before important conversations. Practice with your coach or with a peer.