6 Ways to Listen Like a Leader

The ability to listen effectively is an essential component of leadership, but few leaders know just what it takes to become a better listener. You can improve your ability to lead effectively by learning the six skills for active listening.


CCL’s Michael Hoppe recently authored the guidebook Active Listening to make CCL’s approach to active listening more explicit and available to a broad audience. In the book, he describes the six skills that contribute to an active listening mindset.


Active listening involves paying attention, holding judgment, reflecting, clarifying, summarizing and sharing. Each skill includes various techniques or behaviors.


1. Paying attention. A primary goal of active listening is to set a comfortable tone and allow time and opportunity for the other person to think and speak. Pay attention to your frame of mind, your body language and the other person. Be present, focused on the moment and operate from a place of respect.


2. Holding judgment. Active listening requires an open mind. As a listener and a leader, you need to be open to new ideas, new perspectives and new possibilities. Even when good listeners have strong views, they suspend judgment, hold their criticism and avoid arguing or selling their point right away. Tell yourself, “I’m here to understand how the other person sees the world. It is not time to judge or give my view.”


3. Reflecting. Learn to mirror the other person’s information and emotions by paraphrasing key points. You don’t need to agree or disagree. Reflecting is a way to indicate that you heard and understand. Don’t assume that you understand correctly or that the other person knows you’ve heard him.


4. Clarifying. Use questions to double-check on any issue that is ambiguous or unclear. Open-ended, clarifying and probing questions are important tools. Open-ended questions draw people out and encourage them to expand their ideas (i.e., “What are your thoughts on …” or “What led you to draw this conclusion?”).


Clarifying questions ensure understanding and clear up confusion. Any who, what, where, when, how or why question can be a clarifying question, but those are not the only possibilities. You might say, “I must have missed something. Could you repeat that?” or “I am not sure that I got what you were saying. Can you explain it again another way?”


By asking probing questions, you invite reflection and a thoughtful response instead of telling others what to do. You might ask, for example, “More specifically, what are some of the things you’ve tried?” or “What is it in your own leadership style that might be contributing to the trouble with the team?”


5. Summarizing. Restating key themes as the conversation proceeds confirms and solidifies your grasp of the other person’s point of view. It also helps both parties to be clear on mutual responsibilities and follow-up. Briefly summarize what you have understood as you listened (i.e., “It sounds as if your main concern is …” or “These seem to be the key points you have expressed…”). You could also ask the other person to summarize.


6. Sharing. Active listening is first about understanding the other person, then about being understood. As you gain a clearer understanding of the other person’s perspective, you can then introduce your ideas, feelings and suggestions and address any concerns. You might talk about a similar experience you had or share an idea that was triggered by a comment made previously in the conversation.


This article is adapted from Active Listening by Michael Hoppe (Center for Creative Leadership, 2006).