Is Listening the Most Underrated Leadership Quality? Devin Morrissey

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“When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.” – Stephen Covey

Yes, listening does seem to be one of the most underrated leadership qualities. Covey knew that true listening is like giving oxygen, air, and life to another person. That is what leaders should do. They should be inspiring their team, their work, and their businesses. Soft skills, like listening, are the most significant strengths a leader can have because it’s what gives people the confidence and motivation to do great things.

In this article, we’re going to discuss why listening is underrated and why soft skills are so important in leadership. Then, we’ll give you some ways to help develop your listening and communication skills to be a more effective leader or to help you finally get that leadership position. Let’s dive in.

Why Soft Skills Are Important

When a business is looking to hire someone or promote someone to a leadership position, they usually look for two types of skills, often referred to as hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are specifically job related, and they are required to perform the tasks of the job. Hard skills can be earned through education or on-the-job experience, and they’re fairly easy to identify.

Soft skills are more difficult to pin down; these are people skills like communication, listening, and empathy. Businesses crave leaders with soft skills because hard skills can be easy to teach, but soft skills are more rare and difficult to evaluate in an interview.

Soft skills are a better indicator of whether or not someone is going to communicate effectively and work well within a team. If you find that your soft skills could use a little work, I hope this next section will help you out.

Developing Communication and Listening Skills

How can you develop your soft skills to become a better leader? For the purpose of this article, we’re going to focus on developing your communication and listening skills.

But communicating and listening can be two very different concepts when not practiced simultaneously. The experts at Rutgers University explain, “listening, understanding, and (arguably most of all) emphasizing are just as essential as clear spoken and written communication.” So keep in mind, effective communication needs active listening.

Five Levels of Listening

To develop better listening skills, I find that understanding the five levels of listening to be helpful.

  1. Ignoring
  2. Pretending to listen
  3. Selective listening
  4. Attentive listening
  5. Empathic listening

If you’ve ever experienced a person you are speaking to either ignoring you, pretending to listen to you, or even selectively listening to what you’re saying — you know this is incredibly frustrating. It is clear that levels one through three don’t facilitate effective communication, and they definitely don’t make good leadership.

Most people float around number four: attentive listening. While attentive listening means you are paying attention, it’s also where we listen to respond.

When we listen with the intent to respond, we are predominantly listening to ourselves and not the person speaking to us. This is a great improvement from ignoring, pretending, and selective listening, but it’s still not as effective as number five: empathic listening.

Empathic listening is a highly sought-after quality in leaders. It is when you actively listen to improve understanding and trust.

Here are some ways you can practice empathic listening to develop your leadership skills:

  • Give your undivided time and attention to the person speaking to you.
  • Know the difference between empathy and sympathy. When you’re sympathetic you might offer a personal story but with empathy you can just say, “I understand.”
  • Pay attention to your body language. Don’t fidget or look at your phone.
  • Don’t interrupt by jumping to possible solutions. Just listen quietly and nod or offer small reassuring comments.
  • Offer open-ended and empathetic questions.
  • Ask for more information if it feels like they’ve only revealed the tip of the iceberg.
  • Repeat a word or phrase to show you’re listening.
  • Get comfortable with silent pauses.

Great leaders are great listeners, among many other important qualities. In our world of fast-paced information and the mad hustle, we need to slow down and stop to listen a little better. I hope that understanding why listening is so important and what the different types of listening look like will help you to better develop your skills for your professional career and your personal life.