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  • Graham Drew

The essential guide to improving listening skills for emerging leaders

Congratulations! You’ve successfully navigated your way to your first leadership role. You start next month leading a team of four, and you’re about to sit down with your new manager to talk through your development plan. What’s likely to be on the list do you reckon? Presentation skills? Delegation skills? Motivation skills?

Deer with giant ears in the grass

How about listening skills? Listening is a key skill for someone taking on a leadership role for the first time. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s the fundamental skill that should be prioritised for any new leader. It’s critical for anyone whose role involves building relationships with others. But as a leader, it’s more important than ever. Without it, it’s hard to gain empathy and understanding, and therefore hard to build trust. How can you hope to inspire others if you don’t know what makes them tick?


But the reality is that improving listening skills is often overlooked – we all know how to listen, right? Well, not necessarily. In fact, according to research into board-level skills evaluation, listening was rated as the most deficient skill in Chief Executives (Larcker et al). Although communication skills are highly valued in the workplace, listening is often the least emphasised and taught in business schools (Brink & Costigan). Managers tend to focus more on how well their teams can ‘transmit’ information, and less on how well they ‘receive’ it.


So until the world catches on that listening is the primary leadership skill, I’ve put together a short guide to help new leaders help themselves.


Seek training to improve listening skills


I appreciate my bias in this area, but listening skills warrant a structured programme focused on the importance of listening – covering topics such as how to really listen to others; the impact of listening well; how to actively change your listening style to meet the demands of different scenarios.

Woman in headphones drinking coffee at laptop

So often organisations reduce listening to a simple set of instrumental hints and tips, and this is far removed from genuine, effective listening. As a new leader, you will be expected to thrive at new and different responsibilities, interact with new areas of the business, to engage a wide spectrum of colleagues, customers, and suppliers. How can you possibly do this effectively and with confidence relying only on self-taught, habitual, listening skills?


So, don’t be afraid to ask for listening training if it’s not immediately offered. Take a look at what types of listening training is out there and focus on offerings that take behavioural change seriously.


Don’t rely on emulating others!


Of course, you may well have experience of a senior leader who is a listening master. And if so, learning from their example is a wise course of action. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all experienced leaders are expert listeners. We all tend to be familiar with the term “active listening”, and while useful, it’s simply not the whole story. There are many business contexts where other types of listening skills are more effective, and I would strongly advise you equip yourself with these learnings, rather than just following the examples you see around you.


Do your own research – but make sure it’s credible


Two women speak to each other in work setting

If formal training is not an option, then taking some time to do your own research on listening skills for leadership is a good second best. Just make sure the sources you use are credible and the content is relevant to your role and organisation. Eminent publishers such as Forbes and Harvard Business Review are a good place to start. And focusing on behaviours and practical skills, rather than becoming bogged down with academic theory is a pragmatic approach.


Check your assumptions


It’s easy to assume others will think the same way as oneself, but often, this is incorrect. As a team leader, it’s imperative we seek to identify and understand those differences. Listening is a key component to gaining that understanding. Creating the space as a leader to enable time to listen to others and opening our minds to alternative ways of thinking and operating is a first step to achieving a cohesive, effective team.


And this is one to remember throughout your career. Regularly checking in with yourself to review any assumptions you have about your team is a wise move however long you have all worked together. We often listen least to those we know best!


Create a culture where everyone can be heard


Tall tree with four loud speakers fitted to it

Remember too, that as a leader, your role also includes developing key skills in those you lead. The most effective, creative, successful teams continuously listen to each other, enabling everyone to be heard. 


Listening - it’s not rocket science, but equally it’s not as straightforward as it may seem. Acquiring advanced, effective listening skills will stand you in excellent stead as a leader. It could be your wisest move yet. Good luck!

Graham Drew is the founder of Cognis Consulting and co-founder of The Conversation Lab. An expert listener and advanced listening skills trainer and consultant, Graham supports individuals and businesses to grow commercial value through insightful relationships. To talk to Graham and the team at New Beginnings about advanced listening training, please get in touch


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