How to Actively Listen as a Leader

Kohei Yoshino

Active listening skill is one of the top leadership skills that is not worked on due to the misconception that it is something one is born with or not. While it may be true that the ability to listen actively with compassion and empathy comes more naturally to some, it is something any of us can work on and get better at.


3 Levels of Listening

If you have taken any courses in leadership or management, there is a strong chance that you've heard that there are different levels of listening. For those of you who haven't, here's the quick summary:

·       Level 1 - At this level, the focus is on you and you are listening through your own personal filters, assumptions, and judgments.

·       Level 2 - At this level, the focus goes back and forth between you and the person whom you are listening to. Although you are listening, you are listening with the intent to reply. From my experience working with clients and mentees, this is the level that the majority of leaders operate at.  

·       Level 3 - When you are listening at this level, your full attention is on the speaker. You are completely present and listening deeply to really understand what is going on within the person. This means you are listening to not just words but emotions, facial expressions, body languages, and the true meaning of what is being said.


Use of 3 Levels of Listening

When thinking about the 3levels, it is important to note that each level serves different purposes. Level 1 is very effective for gathering information while level 2 is useful when you are expected to provide answers (e.g., interviews or performance reviews).


That said, the real magic, happens when you are connecting with others at level 3. This is when you truly connect with and understand the person. By fully focusing on the person you are interacting with, you establish trust and create a space in which he or she can be honest, open, and vulnerable.


Even as an experienced leader, however, it is not feasible or effective to always operate at level 3.Nevertheless, leaders must be able to access this level when appropriate. I highly encourage you to develop the pathway to level 3 by being aware of which level of listening you are using and staying curious and empathetic towards others.


Again, the key is to really listen with the intent to understand the person and not with the intent to respond. Even if you are very tempted, try not to provide solutions to the problem the person has and instead just stay curious, ask open-ended questions, and hold a safe space for him or her.


Tips on Reaching Level 3

If it’s hard for you to reach level 3 listening and deeply connect with others, try out the following techniques:


·       Make eye contact with the person you are interacting with even if you feel uncomfortable

·       Pay attention to non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, energy level, and tone of voice.

·       Be comfortable with silence and give lots of space for the person you are speaking with to open up instead of filling in the blank space

·       Paraphrase or mirror what the person said to ensure that you really understood what he or she meant

·       Remove any distractions and create an environment where you can fully be present (e.g., turning off phones and smartwatches or find a quiet place when no one else is around)

·       Try to put yourself in this person's shoes by asking yourself questions such as

o  "how would I feel if I were him or her?"

o  "what would I want if I were in his or her position?"

Remember, active listening skill is just like a muscle that you can train at the gym like biceps or hamstrings. The more you practice, the easier it gets to access and stay at level 3.

Kohei Yoshino is the founder and principal coach at Know Yourself Coaching and Consulting.