“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand they listen with the intent to reply.”

Stephen Covey


We all know the powerful effect of truly being listened to and heard. Think about the last time you were treated that way.


Remember how it felt?


Amongst other things, it’s engaging, encouraging, and empowering; flattering; respectful and validating.


But if we’re honest with ourselves, as senior executives, when in a conversation, most of our time listening is spent waiting for our opening to make the points we want to make rather than listening to understand. In fact, you’re probably reading this, waiting for affirmation of your belief system rather than challenge as it’s simply easier when life feels increasingly tough. Gotcha!


If we’re not self-aware enough, this tendency to seek echoes gets worse as we move up the organisational hierarchy, and the compulsion to “have answers” increases. And it’s dangerous.


Leadership can feel a lot like having to distil solutions AND make decisions, much of the time. Resources (including patience) are short, tolerance is finite, and the burden is bulky. But how many of today’s problems require solutions from our store of yesterday’s answers? Some, yes. But an increasing number call for fresh thinking.


We all think we can communicate well. Yet effective communication is about much more than receiving or downloading information, and effective communication skills are central to leadership. It is a leadership skill requiring ongoing development.


Excellent communication is about creating a productive environment for a truly positive exchange, selecting appropriate channels and skills, and then following through on what we receive by committing to an action. Most people forget about that last bit. It’s largely about doing something with what we learn, even if that something ends up being a conscious decision to do nothing.


So it makes good sense to listen well.


Yet therein lies the challenge. If we only listen to respond without being truly open to alternative perspectives that could influence and improve our personal viewpoints, then not only are we potentially missing out on the richness that comes with additional perspective, but we also remain locked in that snug echo chamber of our own making. And in that chamber of broken records and cracked mirrors, we run the risk of duplicating the same patterns, including mistakes. In a world that is changing fast, this can be the very definition of stupidity, from a leadership perspective at least.


So, no surprise that the latest trait to feature in our Leadership Reflections blog, taken from our Future Fit Leadership poll 2022/23, is Listening, given that Future Fit leaders listen effectively to understand and then adapt, where necessary.


This month, it’s more than apt that our five-minute blog is a collaboration with one of our most trusted partners and affiliates, the much-lauded Michelle Reid. Rated as one of HR’s Most Influential (2022) People & Operations Directors, Michelle currently leads the people function at the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM). She is very much an evolutionary HR head, taking responsibility for her own developmental journey to inspire the evolution of her organisation.


Here’s what Michelle had to say about listening as a leadership skill, shared in the hope that there are some points of practical use for you:


“You don’t have to work in the people specialisms or to be a senior leader to tell when someone is really listening to you versus listening to respond. It’s really all in the body language and interaction, right? They say communication is 7% words, 33% tone, and 55% body language. The same is true for listening. When someone makes eye contact, they mirror your stance, they gesture or react during what you are saying with verbal cues or expressions, and most of all, when you are finished, they make an effort to clarify their understanding by repeating back or paraphrasing. They don’t rush to judge, respond, or defend. They take the time to understand, reflect, and ask what’s needed or what’s next. The same courtesies should apply when in a pressurised environment like a senior meeting, as they do when in a more informal 1:1 but scaled for the occasion.


Active listening is a skill we all have, to a greater or lesser degree. But it’s something we can all work on continuously. There is nothing worse than being with someone who is distracted, jumps in, scrolls their phone, or seems in a hurry. Totally switches me off; it’s clear they aren’t there in the moment with you, so why should you bother? It’s often a sign they’re abdicating or going through the motions, and that’s especially galling when you work in a support function where it feels like they’re dumping and running.


It’s so important because people have an innate need to be seen and heard. Listening with intent provides that for them. A safe space where they can talk, share, present, vent, cry, or even just be, enables people to feel valued and that they matter. This isn’t just an HR thing. When people feel this, they are engaged, motivated, and perform better, even in tough times. I know this from hard data at work. Excellence is all about the environment and conditions our people work in, and that can be explored, improved, and optimised purely by listening with intent.


Perhaps most importantly, people have the knowledge and answers in an organisation. It’s why we don’t work alone. They are usually at the front line, so listening with intent can give you massive insight and intelligence that can help drive success.


HR departments can help in many ways. There are the usual go-to suspects, training, coaching, and mentoring. We can act as the facilitators of improvement feedback and make the link to leadership performance contracts. But also, data capture is important (pulse surveys and such). Ensuring that soft skills are included as enablers in dashboards and KPIs, etc. We can also help by leading by example and demonstrating the skill themselves so our colleagues follow suit. This may well be our most important step to creating a listening culture.”


Thanks to Michelle. Lots of food for thought, and if you like what you’ve heard and would like to dig deeper or continue the conversation, please take a look at the resources on our site or drop us a line. We’re always listening.