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The Art of Listening: Effective Communication as a Leader

Effective communication can be boiled down to four factors; your message, your audience, your ability to listen, and your ability to build trust. In an organisational construct, the ability to achieve outcomes is often dependent on the ability to communicate the organisation’s goals and priorities. As a leader, effective communication is comprehensively the biggest obstacle to maximising success through achieving these goals.

While it could be argued that these four factors are of equal importance and one should not be favoured above the others, there is merit in the notion that listening is central to all four factors. As Ralph Nichols once said, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen.” Undoubtedly, the ability to listen is inextricably linked to the ability to build trust, and the ability to build trust is inherently linked to your effectiveness as a leader.

I recently came across an article on effective listening that expressed the need to occasionally nod and make nonchalant sounds in order to show the other person that you were listening. The problem with such advice is it shows the other person that listening is only part of the equation; the other parts are understanding, retaining, and processing the information. In order to understand, retain, and process information, a leader needs to be both attentive and engaged in the conversation.

In being attentive to the speaker, it is important that leaders are present in the conversation. The act of consciously being present in what is being communicated to you includes awareness of the speaker’s body language as well as the words spoken. This presence can be achieved through a number of means, such as adopting mindfulness techniques (for example, regular meditation), or simply acknowledging the distraction and returning to it later.

The most effective way to engage as a listener is to ask questions. Asking questions is a means of clarifying and interpreting information, minimising the difference between what the speaker is trying to communicate and what the listener is taking away, ultimately, building a cohesive understanding. Effective questioning techniques include understanding the different types of questions, and which question style will invoke the most informative response.

The ability to engage as a listener depends on any perceptions held. Perceptions held determine the ability for the listener to ask effect questions, which fall within three domains; focused on self, focused on others, or focused on context.

  • Being focused on self (first position) is where the listener is self-absorbed, they only focus on the feelings and opinions of themselves.
  • Being focused on others (second position) is where the listener is attentive to the speaker (this includes being aware of their attitude and behaviour). Essentially, a second position listener seeks to understand the speaker.
  • Being focused on context (third position) is where the listener is able to take a ‘helicopter view’ and seeks to not only understand themselves and others, but also the relationship and the interaction between those involved. This means that the listener seeks to understand the situation.

These perceptions, adopted by the listener, are vitally important in how the messages from the speaker are interpreted. As leaders, holding a second or third position will most effectively frame the questioning of the speaker when engaging in the communication.

Ultimately, effective listeners are good at the whole process; understanding, retaining, and, processing information, showing you are listening and being both attentive and engaged.

If you would like assistance in mastering the art of effective communication, please contact TMS Consulting at

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