More than just “paying attention”, active listening involves suspending judgment and reflecting back to the speaker that you understand what they are saying[1]. The dynamics of these components are much more complex than they sound because it requires a certain mindset, not just attention. For a leader, it requires not only wanting to see the world from someone else’s perspective, but reproducing that perspective back to them so they can see how they are being interpreted. A leader needs to see these alternative perspectives in order to make room for other people in the bigger vision of the organization. If the vision does not truly incorporate an individual’s values, they aren’t as willing to follow.

Active listening also requires taking emotion into consideration with the content and letting the speaker lead the conversation[2]. This is difficult because people feel they are somehow passively agreeing with the alternative perspective by putting their views aside. Leaders need to restrain a low agreeableness in being too argumentative towards differing opinions. Likewise, to the opposite extreme, high agreeableness can cause a leader to quickly change their views when encountering conflicting ones[3].

The emotional aspect can go unnoticed if the leader is concerned about their own views rather than focusing on making the speaker feel safe. As it pertains to diversity, truly understanding the value of and being able to leverage differences rests partially on quality listening skills[4].

There are benefits and drawbacks to active listening for both the speaker and listener. The interpersonal relationship formed between them helps build trust and respect for each person. When the listener recreates their words, the speaker knows they are understood by someone else and can better see and understand themselves. This takes time however, as rushing the process can lead to misunderstandings that are counterintuitive to the entire communication exercise. It can also be misused if the listener does not have genuine sincerity in listening, but rather proactively manipulates a relationship or passively creates a superficial one[5].

Find Importance for the Skill

I can’t tell you why active listening should be important to your specific goals because I don’t know you or your goals. What I can do for you is show you why they are important to me. With a little creativity, you should be able to map the pathway onto your life.

What are your goals? I’m working to improve leadership in multiple projects, including developing this leadership blog that details how psychological factors affect leaders, helping to improve education in developing nations, and becoming a leadership coach.

How does active listening play a role? It is paramount to understanding what troubles people and gets in their way when they are looking to improve their lives and those around them. Through understanding more about our own leadership strengths and weaknesses, we are better equipped to pass insights on to others for finding their own. My goals are centered around other people, so it is critical to focus my listening skills on them.

Who actively listens to you? When I think about the best leaders I have encountered, their ability to cognitively empathize has been a prominent attribute to their effectiveness. Through this ability to understand my perspective, I felt validated by them and aim to make others feel how I was made to feel.

You really have to take a meaningful look at what you want as both personal and professional goals for your leadership—take time to ask others where you should improve as well—and find where active listening would strengthen your effectiveness.

Barriers to Active Listening

There are a lot of barriers—countless, perhaps—to active listening. Since they are specific to your personality and style, it’s hard to say what truly blankets every single person. So here, again, I’ll attempt to lead you through my process of finding barriers.

How well do you know yourself? What are you prone to do during a conversation or when anyone is speaking? I find truly listening to what another person is saying requires suspending my train of thought. Personally, I’m an activator, or someone who says, “When can we start?!” I attempt to match action steps to any problems I see as quickly as possible. Active listening requires slowing down and setting personal opinions aside. If I am thinking of ways to help while they are talking, I’m missing the emotional cues they are producing.

This also signifies I’m trying to lead the conversation to a particular outcome. This is manifested in a reply containing a solution, instead of reflecting their perspective back to them to ensure we both feel they were understood correctly.

How do you deal with differing opinions? My go-to conflict mode is competing, which produces defensive reactions and can stifle a person’s desire to share. This is complicated further by any implicit biases I may have toward the speaker because the evaluative judgments I must suspend are potentially complicated and enlarged[6]. Better said: I have more shit to let go of when I listen to people because I’m competitive.

What’s your personal definition of leadership? I see leadership as someone saying, “Let’s go!”, which guides me to be more authoritative. I’m also extroverted to a fault, so my optimism[7] and charisma can be harmful and deceitful with regards to my actual ability and effectiveness. I can be overwhelming and even fool myself into thinking we can accomplish things that are way too big. This can be mitigated by self-awareness, but we’ll tackle that another day.

How honest are you with yourself? As a white male, others may perceive me as carrying implicit biases I may not have but must be ever aware of regardless. In an era divided and defined by a need for privilege and prejudice awareness, showing that I am truly listening requires perhaps a more profound competence and application of this skill. It is the unwarranted “tailwind” that I receive from my race and the favorable evaluations that I receive from my gender that speak even while I am silent. If I wish to inspire and coach leadership in others, active listening is, by consequence, not just a mindset I must have, but an entire lifestyle I must occupy.

Tests you can take to get to know yourself

(None of these tests diagnose mental health conditions. They are for your own informational purposes to incorporate into leadership behavior.)

  1. Big Five Personality Test
  2. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
  3. TKI for Conflict Modes
  4. CliftonStrengths Assessment
[1] Clawson, J.G. (1991). Active listening. Darden Business Publishing.
[2] Ibid
[3] Toegel, G., & Barsoux, J. (2012, Spring). How to become a better leader. MIT Sloan Management Review.
[4] Davidson, 2002
[5] Clawson, J.G. (1991). Active listening. Darden Business Publishing.
[6] Gladwell, M. (2013). Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. New York: Back Bay Books.
[7] Sheldon, O. J., Dunning, D., & Ames, D. R. (2014). Emotionally unskilled, unaware, and uninterested in learning more: Reactions to feedback about deficits in emotional intelligence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(1), 125-137.

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