Listening: The Most Important Leadership Skill

I’ve worked with executives and their leadership teams for more than 20 years. Often, I am asked, “What is the most important skill to develop to become a really great leader?” The answer to that question is simple. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s listening.

People are often surprised when I say this. “What about being a good speaker?” they ask. “What about being a gifted strategic thinker?” “What about having an inspiring vision?” or, “What about having an extraordinary intellect?”

Of course, those things are important. This doesn’t negate your other skills and talents. But I stand by my original response. Listening is the key. To all of it. Strangely enough, it’s not something that is taught or developed in most people’s educational or professional journey. We take our listening — or more accurately stated — the way we listen for granted.

We Take Listening for Granted

Humans are designed to learn certain survival skills as we grow and mature. These skills develop so that they become automatic, they operate in the background and expend minimal energy; for example, learning how to walk, talk, and eat.

These skills become survival systems so that we conserve our more intentional energy to take on the unexpected. We need that energy reserve to get creative in the face of an unknown circumstance.

Listening falls into the same category. We listen and receive information and data as part of our automatic system. That automatic listening functions as a filtering mechanism, designed to capture some things, and to let other things pass through the screen. These skills are good for innate survival in the wild, and yet not so good in the work place.

Research has shown that the filters we listen through tend to take five predictable shapes or patterns:

  1. We listen through the filter of “confirmation” or “already knowing.” Scientists call this “confirmation bias.” We unconsciously filter what is coming at us in a way that validates our experience or knowledge, and to dismiss or at best be suspicious of disconfirming data. The bias is to confirm of our pre-existing point of view, and we unconsciously ignore that which disconfirms it.
  2. We listen through the filter of “judging & evaluating” – listening to assess the right/wrong, agree/disagree, yes/no, either/or. This binary filtering leaves little room for the ambiguous, “both/and” possibilities that may be presented to us.
  3. We also listen through our “personal” filter. We wait to hear how what is being said has any personal relevance to us. It depends on the individual, but most of us (on auto-pilot) have limited tolerance for a conversation that doesn’t have clear relevance to us, especially with the hectic pace and lifestyles we live today.
  4. Another common filter is resignation –the “been there, done that” filter that waits to see if what is being offered is worth listening to. If I’ve already been there and done that, well … dismissal follows.
  5. “How do I look?” This filter is a little tricky but it’s as busy as the others mentioned above. It does its part to dodge and weave at what we hear to ensure we maintain a certain image and identity in a conversation. If what we hear doesn’t threaten how we want to be seen, there is no issue.

How many times have you been in a conversation or meeting where, after the fact, you said “I wanted to ask about that but it seemed like I was the only one who didn’t understand”? And often, at least one other person says, “So did I. I thought it was just me!”

Our need for conformity, harmony and order can get in the way of real communication. Conflict or confusion then goes underground, and can end up costing a lot of energy in terms of gossip or, even worse, making a less-than-optimal decision.

There is nothing wrong with these filters, per se. They perform an important function of sorting through a lot of data and information to ensure that our environment stays secured, predictable and safe.

Think about it: If what I hear confirms what I already think, sounds familiar, generally validates my point of view, has personal relevance and at the same time doesn’t threaten my experience too greatly, I’m reassured and comfortable. Usually when we listen, our systems automatically seek this environment.

However, listening like this is not helpful for a leader. Leaders are tasked to create the future, strike a course into unknown territory. They innovate in the process, and enroll others in the possibilities they envision. If their listening is on automatic, the best they will be able to hear is an incremental view of what is possible. If they are presented with too much disconfirming data, the automatic listening will start to dismiss and reject, or ignore, possibility. By design. It’s a filtration system.

The best leaders listen actively beyond their “filters”.

The most powerful leaders are people who practice another kind of listening. They catch those filters when they activate inside themselves and they intentionally amp up their receptivity. We call it listening generously—the ability to catch yourself when you shut down your hearing, and then open it up again beyond your natural reflex action.

This adjustment is invisible, but you know who these people are. You have been in the presence of someone who listens generously. How do you know?

You can share ideas, possibilities and even share yourself in a way that feels expansive, validated and received. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve been agreed with, but at least you’ve experienced being heard.

The way you listen will invite what people tell you and others. Wouldn’t you prefer to hear something that challenges your thinking? Especially if your future, or your organization’s future, is at stake?

Finally – simply knowing about our tendency towards automatic listening makes almost no difference… unless we practice. 

What is the best way to practice this kind of generous listening?

Catch yourself when you are not! Once caught, make a concerted effort to reengage. The result could very well be a discovery that leads to a future for your organization (and you), that you never even imagined possible.

Author’s note: this article draws on the author’s experience of over 20 years of application of concepts and tools from Generative Leadership Group, LLC