Active Listening as a Leader:

4 Ways to Use Emotional Intelligence To Listen Exceptionally Well

Surveying thousands of people over 15 years, there are two attributes that make real leaders stand out. The first is listening.  Why’s it such a rare and powerful practice among leaders?  What would it take to be one of those?

Today, I spoke with a group of business leaders in Lisbon, and again, listening popped up as a rare and exceptionally powerful gift of exceptional leaders.  If I were talking to your colleagues, would they think of you as the one “stand out leader” in their lives?  I suspect that more careful listening is one of the most powerful ways to get on this most exclusive of lists. But in a world of Zooms, smartphones, and packed schedules, there are more obstacles to listening than ever before.

Why is listening so significant?

From my personal experience, it’s easy for me to think of times when I didn’t sense real listening.  This triggers all kinds of insecurities for me:  Do I matter?  Am I included? Do I have a voice?  As a somewhat introverted person, I’ve often felt like an outsider.  But when someone really listens to me, I can FEEL the connection.  I suspect listening meets many of our basic human needs:

First, good listening is a gift that touches a core need for significance.  When people listen to us, they give us time.  They don’t “take time” to listen, they give it.  This sends us a primal signal:  I matter.

Second, when a leader listens, we feel belonging – which is one of the most powerful human motivators.  Literally, when we “feel listened to,” we have a “seat at the table.” We are part of the group — and when it’s the leader listening, we’re part of the leader’s group.  We’re in.

Feeling heard activates a third basic human need: accomplishment.  We have a voice.  We have a chance to contribute.  We’re part of the solution.

Why is listening so difficult?

Thinking about this article, I was remembering the last few interactions I had with my team.  I was leaving on a long trip, had about a million and seven tasks to accomplish, and I was pretty focused on my own “stuff.”  One of my team members came to ask me some questions.  At one level, I perceived it as an interruption and went into judgment, “this isn’t really important, why do we need to talk about this now?”  Thankfully I’ve learned to halt that inner critic pretty quickly, and I navigated my emotions and turned on some empathy… but this initial reaction offers some insight (I hope so, else, I’ve just admitted to being a bit of a jerk for no reason).

As I mentioned in a recent article about stress and collaboration, there’s intriguing research about the way our prefrontal network prioritizes information.  In order to “focus” on tasks and data, our brains shut off other functions, including processing emotional data: more task orientation means less empathy.  In our high-stress lives, we are forcing our brains to juggle, and when there are too many balls in the air, we drop some.  Unfortunately, we often drop the fragile glass ones that create trust and partnership and respect.

In the Six Seconds Model, one of our core competencies is to Recognize Patterns.  What are your typical reactions when you have too much to do?  When you think someone is interrupting? When you feel impatient?  My patterns certainly don’t help me listen…

How to be a better listener?

I suspect that one reason emotional intelligence is essential in good listening is that EQ skills help us cope with stress (here’s some research on EQ & stress in healthcare).  EQ skills help us juggle those glass balls… and, help us prioritize which ones to drop when we’ve got to do that.  Accurate assessment, after all, is one of the key outcomes of intelligence (be it emotional or mathematical).  So a few tips for bringing emotional intelligence forward when listening:

1. Engage imagination and curiosity

For a recent article on Forbes about the neuroscience of empathy, researcher Marco Iaboboni shared some insights about the links between imagination and empathy.  When you imagine, you build new neural pathways — you create bridges.  You don’t KNOW what the person is experiencing, but you can play, “what if.”  “What if I had this problem?”  “What if I had to talk to me right now?”  “What if she is uncertain and needs my help?”  “What if there is a real problem I’m not seeing?”

I’ve found curiosity to be an invaluable partner to listening.  There’s a Japanese proverb I love, “The other side also has another side.”  Everyone has a story.  There’s something fascinating hiding just out of view.  People rarely (never?) say what’s really on their minds… heck, half the time I don’t even know what’s really on mine.  But with this combo of imagination and curiosity I can enter into a sense of wonder and openness that let’s me hear much more than is said.

2. Re-prioritize

The biggest obstacle, perhaps, is bizzyness.  Did you see the intriguing NY Times opinion about “The Busy Trap“?  Summary: “The ‘crazy busy’ existence so many of us complain about is almost entirely self-imposed.” We LIKE being busy! We’re addicted to it.  Probably in a literal, chemical sense of addiction.  I’ve noticed on long plane rides across the Pacific, I am a great listener.  Or on an ambling walk through the winding streets of Rome. Or laying on the warm sand near home on the California Coast.  Or during super-late-night letlag-fueled chats sipping mint tea in Singapore’s Arab Quarter. These are “time out of time” movements. There’s no agenda. No menacing “to do” list.

The obvious implication is that I am much better at listening when there are not “more important things to do.” Hmm. Let that settle in for a minute: What’s our job as leaders?  Isn’t leading our people actually the most important thing to do?

3. Remember that faking it is, well… fake

There’s conflicting evidence about smiling — it seems even a fake smile can lower your stress and improve your mood, but research says it can also make you miserable to fake happiness. In any case, many people are able to see through as least many of the fakes (you can test yourself on this free BBC experiment).  In any case, when we “fake it,” we send a mixed emotional message.  This inconsistency is a signal that can trigger distrust — even if we’re not aware that’s happening.  Instead, take ownership of your feelings so you can be real.

Keep noticing your own feelings.  When you feel impatient, anxious, overwhelmed… you are unlikely to be a good listener.  These are not “negative” or “bad” feelings, they have an important role and purpose, and you’re unlikely to be effective trying to “just push them aside.”  Instead, recognize the emotions as signals of a problem, and deal with it.  Do so before it escalates and it will be relatively easy — otherwise you’ll have a long period of under-performance, especially in jobs such as listening. 

You can learn to navigate emotions.  If you need help, get an EQ coach.  It’s an invaluable skill if you’re committed to leading people.

What makes

exceptional leaders…


They listen.

4. Suspend and attend

My friend Mimi Frenette shared this phrase when we were teaching EQ skills to the US Navy.  Suspend means to stop doing other tasks, and to stop internal chatter (e.g., thinking of what you’re going to say back).  Attend means to notice — not just hearing the words, but attending to the meaning.  What’s underneath?

As Lea Brovedani describes in TRUSTED, leaders who listen stop what they’re doing.  They close their computers.  They move to a new chair.  They give their attention.  This makes listening into a literal moment of investment in the relationship.  An investment in trust.

In her chapter on empathy in Leader as a Mensch, Bruna Martinuzzi provides several tips for listening, including: “Don’t interrupt people. Don’t dismiss their concerns offhand. Don’t rush to give advice. Don’t change the subject. Allow people their moment.”


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