Article by Dr. Paul G. Schempp

It is a skill that packs power because it provides leaders with potent information for decisive decisions and strategic actions.  Yet, you never see it.  Sometimes people look or act like they are listening, but how do we really know?  Listening is an invisible skill.  We can’t see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, or touch it.  But those skillful in its’ use masterfully demonstrated its’ benefits.

How much have you missed by not listen effectively?  Listening is a skill.  And like any other skill, it can be learned, practiced and improved to serve you well.   If “knowledge is power,” then there is power in listening.  IBM’s Thomas Watson, Sr. believed that “listening is one of the best ways to learn.”  With what you learn, you can make better decisions, solve more problems, be more responsive to situations and clients, and consequently be far more successful.

Research with experts consistently reveals that superior leaders ask a great many questions and then listen intently for the answers (Schempp, 2008).  In fact, their highly developed listening skills are one reason they became expert and why they continue to improve. They listen to gather facts, understand how something can be done, how it can be done well, and most importantly, how it can be done better than it is currently being done.  They listen in order to act.

Listening is not only integral to learning, but crucial for building relationships with people for whom you depend upon for your success—co-workers, clients, friends, family and even competitors.  Understanding the viewpoints of others is a critical key for effectively leading others in healthy and productive ways.  It is only by learning to listen that one can listen to learn.

Three Steps to Listen Like a Leader

Step One: Get People Talking.  In the presence of leaders, others will remain quiet out of respect and to be ready to receive the leader’s message.  Often, they will wait until spoken to or begin conversations by expressing personal opinions.  Because outstanding leaders know that everyone has something to teach them, they go after it through questions and interviews.  Those looking to improve their leadership skills must learn to ask questions that get people talking about the topics they know best and that will help the group be successful in meeting its’ mission.  One technique that works well is to use what reporters call ‘follow up questions’. That is, ask questions that get the speaker to expound a bit.  Common follow up questions are “That is interesting.  Can you give more detail?”  or “Can you give me an example?”

Once you get someone talking, ask yourself: what is this person really trying to tell me?, how can I help her or him explain the significance of what they are saying?, and how can I help them articulate what they mean so I can better understand and appreciate their viewpoint? With your eyes locked on the speaker, encourage people to talk by asking probing questions that seek clarification and detail.

Step Two: Seek to Understand.  In his classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey (1989) wrote that effective people “seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”  Covey makes the point that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand, but with the intent to reply.”  When we listen with the intent to reply, we are merely waiting for the opportunity to promote our opinions–but not gain anything new from the conversation.  We do a disservice to the speaker, for we are wasting their time as their attempts to inform us fall on unreceptive ears, and we do a disservice to ourselves, because we fail to receive the potentially valuable gift the speaker is offering.

Interestingly, leading experts studied by my company consistently report that they will listen to anyone–even rank beginners or those outside their field, because as one told us “You never know where the next great idea is going to come from.”  Good listeners develop the skills of concentrating on the statements a speaker makes and summarizing what was said.  In summarizing, they recognize the speaker’s key points.  Some find it helpful to review these points with the speaker by saying, “Let me see if I understand what you are telling me…”

Leadership listening requires accepting and considering the speakers’ remarks rather than making reactive judgments.  Some call this keeping an open mind.  Speakers are far less prone to provide people with information if they believe the person is constantly judging or politely dismissing them.  When speakers feel the listener truly seeks to understand and accept, they are more inclined to honestly share their thoughts, feelings and experiences.  Consider the advantage of a leader who fully understands the needs, perspectives and experiences of their team members over the leader who simply seeks to press their opinion upon their team.

Step Three:  Seek Application.  The final step to effective leadership listening is applying your newfound knowledge.  Once you understand the points that were made, consider how the information just gleaned can help to solve a problem, improve a situation or stimulate something entirely new.  This final step will not only help you remember what was said, but will make effective use of fresh information.  Research studies have consistently found that experts have a superior ability to recall and remember information because they find immediate application for what they have heard or read.   Effective listening provides leads to a steady stream of ideas for leaders and feelings of being understood and appreciated by their team—both characteristics of outstanding leaders.


  • Covey, S.  (1989).  7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  New York: Free Press.
  • Schempp, P.G. (2008).  5 Steps to Expert: How to go from Novice to Elite Performer.  Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black.