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Leaders need to be good at listening.  Sounds intuitive enough right? but it’s amazing how many can’t actually do it. There’s an old adage which refers to the balance between our ears and mouth.

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

But listening isn’t just about hearing,  although that’s a great start! it’s also about understanding what’s being said. Good listening skills are vital in the coaching & mentoring role. Effective leaders ensure mutual understanding by ensuring that their interaction is an ‘adult to adult’ one, i.e. neither party is assuming a subordinate or superior role.  As a leader, there will be an interfering power relationship already at play. Good leaders know how to ensure that it doesn’t get in the way of good communications.

Here are my top tips for ensuring that leaders deal with difficult conversations to the benefit of all parties.


  • There’s nothing worse than trying to hold a conversation with someone who’s looking at the wall or over your shoulder. Careful, non-evaluative attention and eye contact while listening automatically helps the speaker to express what she/he wishes to say, be careful to make this natural and avoid staring;
  • There are other clues into what a speaker means, other than the words they use. Observation tunes the listener into the speaker’s words and the emotional music which accompany them, which is often revealed by facial expressions, gestures and body movements.


  • Empathy: As you recognise the speaker’s emotions and the ‘music’ behind their words, reflect these back as this will help you check your own perception (and bias);
  • This is especially helpful if words and emotions seem inconsistent. As the speaker gains insight into this and becomes confident with your sensitivity, personal disclosures are likely to occur. This, in turn, helps the speaker to bring her/his thoughts, goals, ideas, etc. in line with true their feelings.

Data Reflection!

  • Reflecting actual data back to the speaker is like holding a mirror in front of the speaker, reflecting back the details as you have heard them;
  • This increases clarity and lets the speaker know that you are hearing accurately.


When you feel you are grasping the ideas, feelings, thoughts, etc. from the speaker, summarising helps you both to review and check clarity and mutual understanding of the message.


Sometimes it is appropriate to interpret what the speaker is saying and both parties will find this helpful. However, beware of negative reactions in cases where you’re misunderstood. You may be judged for deliberately distorting the intended message for reasons of your own that have not been declared. Go carefully, in a checking out mode, to avoid this negative reaction, and give up the interpretation rapidly if there are any indications that the interpretation is not correct.

Body language

Show you are interested in what a person has to say by using:

  • Eye contact;
  • Physical confirmations such as nodding/shaking head, etc, and
  • Matching body language, positive, movement, voice and language patterns

Silence is golden

When in scenarios where you’re seeking to influence or seeking to help people create change, give people time to think, because people change when they work through the mental processes themselves and decide to do something differently.  When you ask an insightful provoking question, wait for at least a ten-count before saying anything.

Trust that new insights come during the silence.

Things to try:

  • Put the focus of attention totally on the speaker;
  • Repeat, both conversationally and tentatively, your understanding of the speaker’s meaning;
  • Feedback feelings, as well as content (probe, if appropriate e.g. ‘How do you feel about that?’ or ‘How did that affect you?);
  • Reflecting back shows that you’re listening and that you understand, be prepared to be corrected;
  • Try again if your active listening statement is not well received;
  • Be as accurate in the summary of the meaning as you can;
  • Challenge inconsistencies in what you’ve heard;
  • Allow silences in the conversation, and
  • Notice body shifts and respond to them by waiting. Then e.g. ‘How does it all seem to you now?’

Things to avoid:

Try to avoid these things…..

  • Talking about yourself;
  • Ignoring feelings in the situation;
  • Asking leading questions with a solution in mind;
  • Criticising, dismissing ideas, making assumptions;
  • Thinking about what you will say next;
  • Repeating the speaker’s words too much, or only saying ‘mmm’ or ‘ah-ah’;
  • Pretending you have understood if you haven’t;
  • Letting the speaker drift to less significant topics;
  • Fixing, changing or improving what the speaker has said;
  • Changing topics;
  • Blurting out your own reaction or well intentioned comments;
  • Filling every space with your talk, and
  • Neglecting the non-verbal content of the conversation.


Published by Pete Wilson

Pete has worked in the technology and business change space for over 30 years. He's worked globally for large public sector and governmental bodies and for large private sector multinationals across numerous industry sectors.

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