The Crucial Skill No Leader Should Overlook

In life, we encounter many different kinds of leaders. The first leader you may have followed was likely a parent. Maybe a teacher. Growing into adulthood, your leaders become professors and bosses and mentors until, hopefully, you step into the shoes of leadership yourself.

If I started making a list of what makes a good leader, wow, I could go on for a while. You probably could too! There are superficial characteristics like a strong, commanding presence, a good speaking voice, and being a snappy dresser. Then, there are the more important meat-and-potatoes things: having follow-through, integrity, courage, insight, initiative, and the classic qualities that make leaders worth following.

But there’s a quality to leadership that often gets overlooked.

Empathic listening.

It doesn’t seem like being a good listener should be that crucial to effective leadership, but I’ve learned that quite the opposite is true. It’s paramount. Listening—and real, meaningful, active listening—is a tool that every good leader needs to master.

3 Reasons Active Listening Really Matters in Leadership

There is a right and a wrong way to listen in any given conversation. The wrong way to listen in leadership is to listen with the anticipation of giving a rebuttal or defending yourself. Most of us actually listen this way: our mental energy is going into formulating a response while the other person is still talking.

Active, empathic listening demands that we listen fully engaged in the other person and what they are saying. Our focus takes in their body language, their words, their intentions, emotions, and the whole of what is being communicated. And through empathic listening, we become more effective leaders.


1) Active Listening Leads to Better Decision-making

Busy professionals are just that: busy. We’re often distracted by the task at hand, and that can lead to our conversations with people getting cut off, confused, and, at the very least, stuck in a war for attention with every other distraction we have before us. Active listening allows leaders to stop and get the full picture they need to consider every angle of an issue before making a decision.

Leaders who listen well are better equipped to keep track of a conversation and have an easier time processing information—allowing for better informed decisions, and less debate, confusion, or back-and-forth to sort through any given situation or proposal.

2) Empathic Listeners Get to the Heart of the Issue

Active listening gives us a more complete picture of an issue. In a conversation, you can get a better read on the other person and what they’re really saying. Some people don’t always get their message across clearly—they talk around their real point either for fear of offending, or because they don’t have the right words, or they just don’t know if it’s worth bringing up. An active listener doesn’t just hear words.

They pick up on tone, body language, expressions, and eye contact. Because they recognize these cues, they can better decipher true meanings and cut to the heart of the issue to resolve problems.

3) Good Listeners Build Trust & Respect

Perhaps most important is this: leaders who listen well earn trust and respect with those around them. They make the people around them feel valued. They create an atmosphere where collaboration can thrive and where tensions aren’t allowed to grow. They allow open, honest communication: and for anyone in leadership, you know just how valuable that can be.

If you find yourself struggling with empathic listening, you aren’t alone: it’s a skill that most of us don’t take to naturally!

Here are a few small changes you can make to begin communicating more empathically:

  • Ask more open-ended questions. It draws more information out from the other person.
  • Don’t interrupt the other person, even if you need to correct them or have something important to say. Wait until they are finished and circle back to it. It keeps your conversation from turning into an argument.
  • Don’t come to any conclusions before you hear the other person out completely. Wait until they finish to formulate your opinion and response.
  • Reflect what you heard back to the other person, i.e. “So what you’re saying is…” to clarify understanding and verify your own listening.

Ultimately, active, empathic listening creates leaders that are effective, trusted, and more powerful at their work.

And who wouldn’t want to lead to the very best of their abilities?