How to Master Active Listening Like the Sustained Leader You Are

How to Master Active Listening Like the Sustained Leader You Are

The strongest tool in your relationship-building toolbox is very simple. It is to listen. Not just “hear” but to genuinely listen and work to absorb the message being sent to you. When you are leading a team, dealing with stakeholders, or in any situation where you need to build a relationship, practicing active listening is a very simple skill you should master to make these encounters more powerful and rewarding.

A Skill You Can Learn

A failure to listen is a voluntary act. People fail to listen for a host of reasons. They might have other things on their minds, or be tired. They might have little interest in the topic or the speaker, or might disagree with the speaker’s point. Often people are mulling their response to the speaker and have tuned out the rest of the message. All of these are reasons and not very good ones. None of them are excuses. Sustained leaders never make excuses.

Stephen Covey tells us that a key habit of successful people is to seek first to understand – then to be understood. We all want to be understood – or at least heard. The problem is that most of us have developed some very bad habits that make us want to be heard first rather than understanding first.

Our bodies send signals that we are not listening and those around us can see those. Active listening helps you send better signals – signals that you care, are listening for understanding, and that as a result, you will be fair. It builds trust and relationships.

Eye Contact – Seeing What is Said

The first of these leadership practices is to establish solid eye contact. This is not a staring contest to see who can go without blinking for the longest time. Eye contact tells the person that you are focused on them; that you are listening to their every word. It should be natural and you should try very hard to ignore the TV behind them, or the dog running down the street, or the cop writing a ticket on – wait a minute is that your car? OK, there are legitimate distractions. Absent that, stay focused on the speaker.

Other Body Language

Eye contact is just one of several positive body language signals to show you are listening. Sit or stand straight, without slouching. Nod in understanding. This does not indicate agreement; only that you are listening.

Where you place your hands can also invite the speaker to provide more detail or explanation. Putting your hands on your hips (called “akimbo”) suggests that you are impatient or crossing them against your chest indicates closed-mindedness. This will quiet them more quickly. Fiddling with the change in your pocket or jingling keys can have that same effect. Try to keep your hands still. Don’t sway, dance, or shuffle your feet. Be relaxed. Open your ears and listen.

Focus on the Speaker

Our ability to hear what is being said far exceeds the speed at which the most rapid speaker can talk. What we usually do with this surplus brainpower is to formulate what we are going to say next. While some thinking allows us to comprehend what is being said, resist the temptation to formulate your next monologue after hearing the first ten words of the person speaking.

Common Courtesy

In the same vein, don’t interrupt; it makes people angry and they respond accordingly. Let people drone on if they must. It makes them feel heard. Some personality types speak to think aloud. Allowing them to continue can sometimes allow them to convince themselves of your position. This takes patience – another important and too-rare skill for the active listener.

Encourage Details and Context

Practice a few natural phrases that encourage people to tell their whole story. Such phrases as, “and then what happened?’ or “and how did that make you feel?” or “please tell me more” all serve to get more detail from the speaker. Not everyone is a good storyteller, so they might need some coaching to get the story laid out in a complete and sequential fashion.

To improve your skill in this area practice telling jokes or short stories. It is a learned skill that very few people do well. Read short stories from authors you enjoy. Mark Twain was a consummate storyteller.

Outstanding Questions

Another encouraging device is to learn to ask outstanding questions. This is a more difficult and detailed skill to master. It is beyond the scope of this article, yet an essential skill for the sustained leader.

Repeat and Rephrase

Another suggested habit is to practice repetition and rephrasing. Repeat to the person what you heard. Put it in your own words. This gives them a level of confidence that you understood things the way they intended to convey them. This repetition also locks it into your mind so that you can recall it later.

Muddled Thinking = Muddled Speaking and Writing

Both muddled writing and muddled speaking reflect each other. If you cannot say it clearly, you are not thinking clearly. If you are not thinking clearly, you cannot speak or write clearly. When you get yourself confused, your listeners are confused as well.

I long ago memorized a short phrase to help lighten the mood and reset my own thinking when this happens. “I know you think you understood what you thought I said, but what you don’t understand is that what you heard is not what I meant to say.” In radio, we would say, “My tongue got wrapped around my eye-teeth and I couldn’t see what I was saying.”

Seth’s Wisdom

Seth Godin has made the following observation:

“That’s not what I meant”

Disagreements among people who mean well usually begin with that emotion.

You meant to say something or agree to something, but the “other side” didn’t hear it that way.

That’s enough for a customer to walk away forever. That’s enough for a lawsuit. Because denying the experience of the other person doesn’t open the door for re-connection.

Forward motion is possible if we can extend the sentence to, “That’s not what I meant, but that must be what you heard, how do we fix this? Will you help me make things right again?”

If we can agree on intent, it’s a lot easier to figure out how to move forward.

Seth’s Blog 10/22/20

Read Your Audience

Learn to read the body language of your listeners. When you have stumbled or misspoken, it is important to correct yourself and clarify for your listeners. You might be responding to a puzzled look, indications of distraction, or they might even fall asleep.

When you are the speaker, it is your job to hold your audience. Acknowledge your own shortcomings, and reset the intended message. If the message does not come clearly from you, there is little hope it will be received clearly.

Taking Notes

Is it appropriate to take notes while engaged in active listening? This is a common problem for journalists and leaders. Capturing conversations in writing can facilitate clear communication. Although you have to drop the eye contact to look at a piece of paper, the simple answer is yes – it is appropriate to take notes. LIMITED notes.

Why limited? While eye contact encourages a focus on what is being said, most people will better remember things that they write down. By making limited notes you can focus on those most important things and commit them to memory.

Feeding Their Ego

Further, some note-taking suggests to the speaker that you consider something they said so important that it is worth making a record of it. There is something interesting about the written word.

Writings are Powerful

When we see something in writing, we naturally believe that it is more accurate. This concept has led to the humorous conclusion that if you found it on the web, it must be true.

Obviously, that is NOT true. We only laugh because it is “almost” true. We are more likely to believe something that is written down, and if you are writing what the speaker is saying, you are encouraging them with the subliminal message that you believe what they are saying. So yes, it’s OK to take notes during active listening. Keep it limited.

Keep it short so that you can re-engage the eye contact.

Learn by Observing

If you ever have the opportunity to observe a great reporter you will see that they ask excellent questions and then have the learned ability to continue writing while maintaining eye-contact with the interviewee. And they write clearly. It is not the chicken-scratch that you might imagine. In this way, they record impressions while being sure not to miss any nonverbal cues.

Voice Inflection

Whenever you are talking, as the leader, you will often command more attention than you intend. You always have the tool of your voice – it’s volume, inflection, and tone. Temper your words. Do not be aggressive with your language or your attitude, just as you should not appear condescending.

If your listener perceives that you are speaking down to them, they will stop listening and begin plotting their revenge. You can’t control their perceptions completely; you can, however, work toward not antagonizing them!


I can’t emphasize this next point enough – there is NEVER a place for vulgarity or profanity. Remove those words from your language in all situations. Similarly, off-color jokes, sexist or racist comments, or any other discriminatory comments are never funny. Never say them.

But …

Another excellent suggestion is to eliminate the word “but” from your lexicon. Whenever there is a “but” in a sentence it is a red flag that says, “everything that came before this is about to be negated.” It is an indirect (and passive/aggressive) way to say, “You are wrong!” People do not like that.

What if instead of using “but” you convert every one into an “and”? This validates what they have said and builds on it. Try this in your everyday conversation. You will see a very different reaction from those around you. If that is uncomfortable or awkward, simply allow the sentence to end and start a new one.

Silence is … Quiet

Never underestimate the great value of silence. A pause to allow people to collect their thoughts or to become uncomfortable with their own non-response provides an opportunity for everyone to seek a better understanding. Never speak just to fill the silence.

More Learning by Observing

Find someone you respect, perhaps a mentor or fellow negotiator, and observe their listening style. Observe their body language, how they listen from their heart, and listen closely for understanding and content. Then ask their honest assessment of your listening skills. Active listening skills can be learned and honed.

Nurturing the Relationship

Additional relationship-building techniques include using the person’s name, learning to ask open-ended questions, lead the conversation toward them rather than you, and as amazing as it sounds to have to say this – PUT YOUR PHONE DOWN!

Refer to Carnegie’s How to win Friends and Influence People for more phenomenal relationship-building clues and techniques.

Give Credit to … Everyone

The final key to being an outstanding active listener and being recognized as a sustained leader: Don’t worry about who gets credit for an idea that improves the team or moves the team closer to achieving its goals. If your ego is that large, you probably aren’t an active listener (and certainly not a sustained leader) anyway!

Build a Strength

Like all 229 elements of sustained leadership, practicing active listening is harder for some than it is for others. In leadership roles, it is a critical skill that is worth the practice.

This material is derived from the book Sustained Leadership WBS and is found in section 3.4.1 Active listener. Buy the book here:      eBook      Print

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With an extensive career in government contracting, Tom has found many examples, both good and bad, of leadership. These posts are based on his latest book, Sustained Leadership WBS, published by Morgan James. Tom is available to speak to your team on the importance of developing sustained leaders.


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