Why Good Listeners Become Better Managers

Unposed group of creative business people in an open concept office brainstorming their next project-

You’ve probably heard that listening is an essential managerial skill. A whole host of business publications, consultants, and, of course, TED talks emphasize its importance.

But few people understand that ‘listening’ well can also transform you from a manager to a leader. Management is a function, but leaders inspire, cultivate innovation, motivate, and transform through their relationships with people inside and out of their organizations.[1]

The art of listening is essential to being an effective leader, whether you’re supervising a team of two—or two thousand. And if you’re looking to find your way to a leadership role, researchers Curt Bechler and Scott D. Johnson found that those who exhibit better listening skills are more likely to become leaders.[2]

Why Do Managers Need to Listen?

Several studies have shown that listening is the primary and most important activity in direct business communication—more so than speaking or reading. But research has also shown that listening is one of the most difficult communication situations for managers.[3] So why does it cause so many problems?

Better Listening Is Better Communication

Many of us hear others speak, but listening is an ongoing process that involves our cognitive understanding, observing our own and others’ body language and tone of voice, and how we respond to those to whom we are talking—both in verbal and nonverbal ways.

When we talk about listening, what we’re really talking about is communication holistically. Are our ideas conveyed and understood by all participating parties? Is any meaning lost along the way? Does everyone at the table feel free and open to speak their mind without pressure from management, or other sociological phenomenon such as peer pressure or groupthink? These are just a few of the mindful questions to ask yourself after your next conversation or meeting, because researchers have found that those who are better at listening actively adjust their personal behaviors to suit the needs of a particular conversation.[4]

The Benefits of Listening Better at Work

Supervisors of all kinds can reap a myriad benefits from engaging in active listening. Some notable benefits include:

How to Listen More Effectively at Your Next Meeting

All managers can improve their listening skills, but it’s more than just nodding your head and responding to the speaker. Truly great listeners express concern for—and interest in—those they engage in conversation.

Several studies have shown that following suggestions and directions, giving eye contact, portraying attentiveness through body language, understanding another’s point of view, and the ability to accurately paraphrase the speaker’s ideas all convey effective organizational listening.[7]

One effective way to listen more deeply is to practice mindful listening. Mindful listening is inherently empathic, and may require you to break some not-so-helpful communication habits, such as speaking over those who are speaking.

Instead of acting on an impulse to speak, interrupt, or contradict the person who is speaking, take a deep breath. Let the speaker finish their thoughts, and observe your own behavior as well as that of the other person.

Try observing your body language. Arms folded across the chest can convey being closed off, or even a refusal to listen. Try leaning forward towards your conversation partner. And keep an eye on your own facial expressions. Camiel J. Beukeboom at the VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands found that merely smiling or frowning can potentially change how information is conveyed or remembered.[8]

If you want to position yourself as a real leader in your workplace, then take the time to sit back and listen.


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[1] Maccoby, Michael. “The Human Side: Understanding the Difference Between Management and Leadership.” Research-Technology Management 43:1 (2000): 57-59. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/16b4/c5e63f4ce9fd2dde229ddcfb1631dbb29388.pdf  

[2] Bechler, Curt, and Scott D. Johnson. “Leadership and listening: A study of member perceptions.” Small Group Research 26:1 (1995): 77-85. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1046496495261004 (Paywall)

[3] Husband, Robert L., Lynn O. Cooper, and William M. Monsour. “Factors underlying supervisors' perceptions of their own listening behavior.” International Listening Association. 2:1 (1988): 97-112. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10904018.1988.10499100 (Paywall)

[4] Gearhart, Christopher C., and Graham D. Bodie. “Active-empathic listening as a general social skill: Evidence from bivariate and canonical correlations.” Communication Reports 24:2 (2011): 86-98. http://www.academia.edu/download/30153658/MS_-_AEL_as_a_Social_Skills_Evidence_from_Correlations.pdf

[5] Lloyd, Karina J., Diana Boer, Joshua W. Keller, and Sven Voelpel. “Is my boss really listening to me? The impact of perceived supervisor listening on emotional exhaustion, turnover intention, and organizational citizenship behavior.” Journal of Business Ethics 130:3 (2015): 509-524. http://astadipangarso.staff.telkomuniversity.ac.id/files/2015/08/101.pdf

[6] Ames, Daniel, Lily Benjamin Maissen, and Joel Brockner. “The role of listening in interpersonal influence.” Journal of Research in Personality 46:3 (2012): 345-349. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a473/b53bf9757d53186b3146017e949239cd1d36.pdf

[7] Cooper, Lynn O. “Listening competency in the workplace: A model for training.” Business Communication Quarterly 60:4 (1997): 75-84. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

[8] Beukeboom, Camiel J. “When words feel right: How affective expressions of listeners change a speaker's language use.” European Journal of Social Psychology 39:5 (2009): 747-756.http://dare.ubvu.vu.nl/bitstream/handle/1871/32710/CJ.%20Beukeboom%20-when%20words%20feel%20right.pdf?sequence=2

Michael Taft

Michael W. Taft is a meditation teacher and bestselling author of several books, including The Mindful Geek, Nondualism: A Brief History of a Timeless Concept, and Ego (which he co-authored). He regularly teaches meditation at Google, and worked on curriculum development for SIYLI. Follow him on Twitter @OortCloudAtlas or at www.wisdomlabs.com.

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