How to Listen as a Leader

By: Angie (Min Ah) Park

The Demand for Better Listeners

As the renowned sound expert and TED speaker, Julian Treasure, points out, listening is increasingly becoming a rare skill, despite its growing demand. 

In his TED talk, watched more than 10-million times, Treasure articulates the seriousness of the problem that we’re losing our listening. In his words, this problem “is not trivial, because listening is our access to understanding.” And a world without understanding is a dangerous place.

Likewise, organizational leadership in 2022 requires a sharp focus on conscious listening and understanding. From a simple Google search of two keywords: “active listening” and “leadership,” countless programs and resources appear with titles such as: “6 Ways Effective Listening Can Make You a Better Leader,” “The Importance of Listening as a Leader in the Digital Era,” and “Great Leaders are Active Listeners.”

This intertwined relationship between leadership and listening is becoming more and more inseparable with the flux of the Great Resignation and soaring demands for inclusion and belonging.

For organizational leaders today, learning to listen is a challenging yet necessary imperative for business success.


How Do We Become Better Listeners as Leaders?

This blog will share practical strategies to improve our listening by breaking down the process of listening into 3 levels: physical, mental, and emotional.

At THG, we believe that conscious and active listening is a learnable skill, and it is a core component of many of our popular learning experiences on Learning to Love Feedback, Inclusive Leadership, and Speaking as a Leader

Simply put, conscious listening means listening with intention

Recognizing the different parts of listening helps us to set more meaningful intentions and listen with impact as a daily part of our leadership practice.


Types of Listening

1. Physical

A participant in a THG program on leadership once shared a memorable experience that demonstrates the power of physical listening.

While giving a high-stakes presentation in a meeting, she had noticed one of the managers in the audience who consistently made eye contact with her, leaned into the desk, and even smiled encouragingly or nodded their head from time to time to show their approval.

By the time she walked away from that meeting, she felt as though she had delivered a whole presentation just to that single manager, although the room had been full of other senior leaders. 

After the presentation, she was even more surprised to discover that other leaders in the room had been just as approving of her ideas as the manager who had actively shown that they were listening.

Regardless of the unanimous approval, the participant felt most supported by the manager who had leaned in to her presentation, because still to this day, she recalls having felt heard.


Just like the participant’s story, it’s easier to see the impact of physical listening when we remember being on the talking end. 

Our ability to feel heard while speaking often depends on the listener’s body language. When listening as a leader, we want to be conscious about how we listen: if sitting, lean into the desk, make eye contact, or smile and nod to show your respect and engagement. 

As best as you can, try to avoid being physically distracted such as turning your head/body away from the speaker or attempting to multitask while someone is speaking to you.

As we refer to effective listening as “active” listening, striving to listen physically reminds us that listening is not a passive activity but an active one that demands our full bodily attention.

Especially if you are in a more senior position or work in a fast-paced environment, showing your full dedication to the listener while they are sharing their ideas will make a world of difference to their impression of you as a leader and their sense of belonging to the team.


2. Mental Listening

Mental listening, on the other hand, is all about making an effort to understand someone else’s way of thinking and demonstrating that understanding to your audience. 

Good mental listeners suspend their judgment and even their own thought process while listening. Their intention is focused on helping the speaker express their ideas fully, then showing their audience through effective communication that the speaker’s thoughts have been received clearly.

Paraphrasing, asking clarifying questions, and mirroring the language that the speaker uses (even if this is not how you would say it) are great examples of mental listening.


3. Emotional Listening

Many researchers today emphasize the important role that emotions play in the art of negotiation (such as this HBR article). This is where emotional listening comes in. 

This level of listening is like “listening between the lines” - it’s about noticing and acknowledging the emotions that are explicit or implicit within a conversation. 

For instance, in difficult or tense situations, not everyone will have the ability or self-awareness to say to you, “I’m really frustrated with you right now” or “what you are saying makes me anxious.”

Therefore, listening emotionally involves paying attention to cues like the speaker’s tone of voice, word choice, and body language to notice how they are feeling.

Especially when in a difficult conversation, try demonstrating your emotional listening by using expressions of empathy (ex. “I can see how frustrated you are”) and gentle check-in questions (“how does what I’m saying sit with you?”). 

These strategies help to communicate to your listener that you are not only giving them your undivided attention and taking in what they are saying but being considerate of how they are feeling in the moment as well.

Ready to listen as a leader? Go forth, and try the strategies based on the 3 modes of listening today! 

In our next blog, we will explore a great tool for diffusing conflict through communication, called the DESP formula. This tool, combined with our enhanced listening skills, will lessen the fear and discomfort around conflict and allow us to turn them into opportunities for deeper connection.

In the meantime, check out our comprehensive learning experiences, including a new addition, Learn to Love Feedback on the THG website!