Listening Is the Key to Learning in Leadership

Jan 15, 2020 1 Min Read
listening, the key to leadership

The late, great Stephen Hawking said that the greatest enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance – it’s the illusion of knowledge.

When we think we know it all, have answers for everything, and converse with others to reply rather than understand, that’s when we stop growing. When we cease go grow, we stop flourishing.

It’s especially seductive in leadership to think that we know it all. Whether we’ve had 30 years of experience under our belts, worked across different cultures in various impressive roles, or gained some kind of valuable knowledge on a niche subject, our egos can lead us to believe we’ve reached the level of peak expert.

In this fantasy, we talk to others not to engage in meaningful dialogue, but to ‘impart wisdom’ that we feel will greatly enhance the life of the listener. Of course, if they agree with our words, the ego gets another boost and the fantasy becomes reinforced.

I’ve always believed that I can learn from everyone, because to date, that’s exactly been my experience regardless of who I talk to. People’s experiences and perceptions contain more insights and lessons than any book we can pick up, and the most successful people know this. It’s why they listen much more than they talk, because they know that when they listen, there’s every chance they’ll learn something new. On the other hand, if all we do is talk, then at best, we’re simply hearing people agree with what we already think we know.

You may be interested in: What’s Your Motive for Listening?

The best leaders are those who listen with a deep sense of curiosity. They aren’t waiting for the other person to finish so they can have their turn. They don’t see themselves as experts in anything, but as students of everything.

Biographies of historic leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela show this trait in abundance. Of course, even great leaders have egos – but more often than not, they value their growth and understanding more than their image and pride.

As a leader, I’ve experienced for myself the considerable difference between hearing and listening to others. When I’ve been in a hurry, or excited about an idea, I admit to sometimes being the one who’s eager to respond to what’s being said without having fully understood what someone is trying to tell me.

This is something I’ve got better at over the years, and I’m still working on it because, for me, it’s the single most important trait a leader can have – and it’s one that takes effort to develop. So, how can we develop better listening skills that are driven by curiosity and lead to learning? Here are four tips that I’d like to share from my own continuing experience:

1 – Don’t just paraphrase…build on what someone has said 

You’ll likely have heard of the well-known technique of paraphrasing to show that you’re actively listening to the other person. Paraphrasing is when you take what someone has told you, and you repeat it back in your own words.

This can be effective to help build rapport, but I’ve found it’s much better to take what the person has said and build on it. Not only does it show that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to share, you begin to build and shape valuable ideas between you, which results in worthwhile, mutual learning.

2 – Keep an open body posture and lean in 

When someone is telling you something that really grips you, how are you in that moment? The chances are that you’re facing squarely onto them and probably leaning into them as your curiosity literally draws you in. Recently, I read about the ‘belly-button rule’ when it comes to body language.

Basically, we make sure our body is open and facing the body of the other person, and this conveys that we’re paying full attention and open to receiving what the other is saying. Contrast that to, say, standing diagonally to the person, which gives the impression that we’re closed off or about to leave. When it comes to body language, how we present ourselves reflects to others how our mind is primed.

3 – Ask questions 

This one might seem obvious, but how many of us reflexively jump in to make our own point once someone is ‘done’ talking? We might say, “Oh yeah, that reminds me, I was at a conference where I met this amazing leader and they told me…” instead of pausing and saying something like, “That’s an interesting point – and what did you get from that experience? You must have gained a lot of insights!”

Asking questions reinforces your interest in the other person, and, again, it facilitates mutual learning as you both discuss an intriguing idea or concept. The next time you have a conversation, see if you can tell whether you make more statements than you ask questions. If you find you don’t tend to ask questions, it can make a huge difference to add that skill to your interactions.

4 – Maintain good eye contact 

But keep in mind it’s not a staring contest! When we look someone in the eye when they’re talking, we’re not just expressing our interest. It’s said that 20 per cent of effective communication is done through words, while the other 80 per cent is made up of non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expression. When we maintain good eye contact, we’re taking in more information than we realise, which in turn means that the communication we receive is richer and complete.

As an added bonus, good eye contact makes the other person feel respected as you communicate that they have your undivided attention. Practise seeing the person you’re with as the most important person in the room, whoever they may be, and you’ll be amazed at what you get back in return.

You may want to listen to: Effective Listening Skills: React or Respond?

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at


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