Effective Listening for Leaders

By Michael Melcher
Partner, Next Step Partners

Most leaders are good talkers but not such great listeners. This is unfortunate since real leadership depends on two key skills:
1 | the ability to listen effectively
2 | the ability to ask powerful questions

These are the skills that unlock everything else.

This article provides insights and recommendations for leaders on how to listen effectively, ask powerful questions and build a culture of learning.

Effective Listening: Turning the Spotlight on Someone Else

Executives often think they are listening well when they in fact aren’t. Indeed, we tend to equate listening with “not speaking,” and we misconstrue listening as a passive activity. We assume listening is easy and shouldn’t take much effort, when in fact there is significant skill involved.

Let’s start with some definitions. Listening means that you are putting the spotlight on the other person, are tracking what the person is saying, trying to understand their point of view, and listening for the larger subtext: what do they mean? What are they feeling? What is at stake? What are they not saying?

We assume listening well is easy. However, significant skill is required. Click To Tweet

Listening also means that you are making the other person feel heard. You are repeating back what they are saying. It’s not enough to sit with folded arms, stony-faced and silent until they are done talking. You make other people feel heard by maintaining an open posture and voice and reflecting back what they have said.

Good listening is also checking for understanding. You play back what you think they mean and ask, “Is that right?” They might say “yes,” they might correct your understanding, or they might choose to express something in a different way. Whatever the case, you are acting in service of their thinking, not your own.

Are You Just Pretending?

Effective listening starts with the mindset that you are actually open to what the other person is saying. If you are not actually open to being influenced by the other person, you are participating in a kind of conversation, but you’re not listening.

Imagine that you are at a group meeting and someone else raises a hand and begins to speak. Let’s do a quick audit.

Is this you?

  • | If you are waiting for the speaker to finish so you can say your piece, you’re not listening.
  • | If you can predict what she is going to say, you’re not listening.
  • | If you already have an opinion about what you think she is going to say, you’re not listening.
  • | If you jump in on a pause and finish her sentence, you’re not listening.
  • | If you speak over someone or engage in cross-talk, you’re not listening.
Are you really listening? Or just pretending? Click To Tweet

Why is Listening Hard for So Many Leaders?

Leaders typically rise to their position by being problem solvers—for themselves, for their teams, for their companies, for their communities. They get things done, often with particular types of expertise. To some degree, their core sense of self is often as a problem solver.

This is a very common perspective that actually gets in the way of listening. If you believe you need to be the source of good ideas, your brain isn’t going to devote itself fully to listening to someone else. Instead, it will be busy looking for a way to fix the situation. You are going to be at least as much focused on delivering your perspectives as listening with curiosity.

This is ironic since great leaders aren’t so much problem solvers as they are facilitators. They recognize that their power lies in unleashing and combining the power of others.

Leaders aren’t so much problem solvers as they are facilitators. Click To Tweet

Through deep listening, leaders connect dots that people in the weeds lack the perspective to see. By doing less of the talking, they can actually mastermind the dialog and bring out a variety of contributions from other people. A great leader is a gifted conductor, not the loudest horn in the orchestra. Great leaders know what to react to and what to ignore—discernment you can only experience through deep listening.

To take a deep (and entertaining) dive into effective listening, check out Episode 12 of the podcast Meanwhile, which I produce along with my industry colleague, Michael Terrell.

Listening | Podcast

Click the arrow to play podcast | Play Time: 38 min

Inquire to Get to the Real Issue

The companion to effective listening is asking powerful questions. This is how you partner with someone in a dialogue that actually moves things forward.

Powerful questions are open-ended questions that get the other person to think more broadly and deeply. As with listening, you are facilitating their thinking, not doing the thinking for them. This requires you to be attentive and also to hold back! It’s still about them, not about you.

Examples of Powerful Questions

Generally speaking, any question that starts with “what” or “how” can be powerful question. For example:

  • | How are you approaching this?
  • | What are you trying to accomplish?
  • | What are the contributing factors?
  • | What assumptions are you making?
  • | What advice have you gotten? What do you think of it?
  • | What options do you have?
  • | How did you feel when you heard that?
  • | What did you think of his suggestion?
  • | What is your alternative?
  • | If you say yes to this, what are you saying no to?
  • | What’s the big deal about _____?
  • | What resources do you need?
  • | What will happen if you don’t succeed?
  • | What do you want to do here?

“Tell me more about ________” also acts as a powerful question.

Avoid closed-ended questions that can be answered “yes” or “no”—these tend to limit people’s exploration rather than expand it. Further, when you are asking a closed-ended question you are often just providing a potential solution that is masquerading as a question.

Examples of what to avoid

  • | “Have you tried rebalancing the portfolio?”
  • | “Have you reached out to your network yet?”
  • | “Do you think this is really worth the risk?”


Powerful Questions Get to the Real Issue

You ask powerful questions in order to help the other person get to the real issue, which often is not the presenting issue.

For example, imagine that you are a client who struggles with delegation. I have a few delegation models and frameworks up my sleeve. But my experience tells me that it’s not useful to jump into these because we don’t really know what the issue actually is. Maybe there’s a lack of capacity in the people you delegate to. Maybe you haven’t clearly described the goals. Maybe you are deeply uncomfortable giving feedback, so you avoid getting into a relationship where you will have to give it. Maybe you are afraid that other people will think you are lazy. Who knows?

Closed-ended questions that can be answered “yes” or “no” limit exploration or expansion. Click To Tweet

Jumping to an answer would be a false efficiency, because we don’t really know what the issue is. Asking a series of powerful questions to get at the true issue is ultimately more direct.

Are You Strong Enough Not to Provide all the Answers?

Powerful questions are easy to describe and quite difficult to ask consistently, for the same reasons that listening is hard: we have to set aside our Problem-Solver-in-Chief identity. You also need to maintain a mindset of openness and curiosity—and that means staying in the dialogue for more than a question or two.

It can be very scary not to deliver a solution right away. It can require real trust even to have a dialogue like this with someone. But it’s worth it to try.

To hear examples of powerful questions in action, as well as tips on mastering the underlying psychology of acting like a coach rather than an expert, check out Episode 4 of my podcast Meanwhile, which I produce along with my industry colleague, Michael Terrell.

Powerful Questions | Podcast


Click the arrow to play podcast | Play Time: 29 min

Creating Learning Organizations

Positive actions have a ripple effect. When you stretch yourself to be a great listener and a good coach, you are enabling others to grow. You are also signaling what it means to be a capable leader.

As these dialogue skills thrive and expand throughout your organization, they will begin to transform it. Leaders who listen well and ask powerful questions build cultures of learning in which everyone contributes ideas and solutions. The result is more innovation, better collaboration and ultimately growth for both the organization and the individuals in it.

Great cultures and thriving companies are built one conversation at a time. Why not start now?

To learn more about our approach on how to help you become a more effective listener and leader, check out our Listening and Inquiry Workbook.



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