The most important skill? Listening.

When did you last feel truly heard? What impact did that have on you? How did you feel? That’s the feeling I try to bring into every 1:1. And the most important skill I bring to the discussion is listening. But it doesn’t come naturally to many of us.

In my roles as a leader and coach, listening is a powerful tool. But what does it mean to listen? Why does it matter? And how can you improve?

Leading is listening

Modern leaders empower, but there are still many command-and-control leaders out there. I could finish my 1:1s much faster if I didn’t listen. I could tell my team what to do. Instead, I provide space for my direct reports to share their wins, share their challenges, and for us to align on expectations. I listen, rather than tell. What I lose in short-term efficiency my team gains in ownership and long-term growth.

By listening, I empower my team to take ownership of their actions and outcomes. By asking questions, I help them find their answer. You might improve someone’s idea by 5% when you offer a suggestion. But you reduce their ownership by 50%. There’s a huge difference between listening and telling, between commitment and compliance. What do people do when you’re not around?

The individual often has the answer. They don’t need you as a leader to gift it to them. Take the long-term view as a leader: how can you help your team grow and be sustainable in the future, without your direct intervention? Every day, every challenge, is an opportunity for growth.

Listening matters beyond the 1:1. The higher you climb in an organisation, the further you get from the people doing the real work. Their experiences matter. But if you’re not listening for them, you can’t improve them. This is where tools like listening tours and company surveys are invaluable. You don’t have to act on everything you hear — often, you can’t. But you can acknowledge it, seek to empathise with what people are saying, and try to do better.

Listening as a coach

Google’s Project Oxygen collected data from thousands of workers to find the qualities of its best managers. What was the top quality? Being a good coach. Just as with leadership, a good coach knows the importance of listening.

As a coach, I’ve learnt to sit with silence. Like most people, this was uncomfortable at first. Isn’t our instinct to fill the empty air with empty words? But as with jazz, it’s the silence, the space between the notes that matters. When you let the words hang, you let the other person think. You’re not rushing them to get their words out. They know you’re listening, and they take whatever time they need to work through their challenges.

In the knowledge economy, managers are no longer the domain experts. It's your employees who know how things are done and know what options are open to them. It’s the same for you as a coach. You can’t provide “the answer”, because you don’t know it. What you can do is listen to make the other person feel heard. You can listen and ask the right questions. To a point, it doesn’t matter whether you understand the problem or the solution. If your listening partner leaves the conversation with clearer insight and actions, that’s what matters.

Of course, a follow-up to good listening is good questioning. My favourite question is “What else?”. There’s always something else. There’s always something more we want to say, more we want to explore, more we want to share. Yet we’re conditioned not to. It’s rude to talk too much. Some things you shouldn’t voice. So give your partner permission. Ask “What else?”.

How to listen

Listening is not a skill that’s formally taught. Yet so much of what we do relies on it: how we lead, how we grow our teams, and even how we build relationships outside of work. Here’s a few guidelines for listening well.

First, be genuinely curious. From there everything follows. When you’re curious, you listen from a place of curiosity, not judgment. It’s hard to think of your response when you’re hanging on every word.

Avoid distraction. Clear your desk, mute your phone, close your Slack. Especially in a 1:1, but also in other conversations, give the speaker your undivided — truly, undivided — attention. How have you felt when your listening partner was distracted? I’ve felt disrespected, undervalued, and unheard. And how have you felt when you were listened to as if you were the most important person in the room? The complete opposite. Be the listener you want to have.

Pay attention to non-verbal cues. Do you notice shifts in body language, in energy, in tone and pace? What does it mean? And listen to what’s not being said. What is the speaker not focusing on? Why? There’s more being said than the words spoken.

And remember your role as a listener is to listen. Not to solve the speaker's problems. Not to show your wit. And, sometimes, not even to commiserate with them. Don’t assume you know what the speaker needs. You can always ask.

Your people want to be heard. What they need from you is to listening. Whether as a leader or as a coach, to help others grow, feel empowered, and solve problems, just listen.

© Braden Moore.RSS