Why Confident Leaders Listen

While some may be impressed with how well you speak, the right people will be impressed with how well you listen. Great leaders are great listeners, and therefore learning to talk less and listen more is a crucial skill.

The best leaders are proactive and intuitive listeners. They recognize knowledge and wisdom are not gained by talking, but by listening. Take a moment and reflect back on any great leader who comes to mind…you’ll find they are very adept at reading between the lines. The best leaders possess the uncanny ability to understand what is not said, witnessed, or heard.

So, why are so many people in leadership positions not good at it?

I bet you can think of a colleague or a client right now who waits for a team member to finish talking just so he/she can jump in with what they have to say. Or worst, the colleague who impatiently talks over others or answers their mobile (responds to a text) during a meeting.

It is not like leaders/managers don’t know they need to listen.

There are enough instances in the business world of the disastrous consequences of people not listening.

Take for example the British Petroleum executives who did not listen to the experts about the risks associated with their oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil well exploded in 2009, killing 11 workers and costing an estimated £65 ($100) billion in clean-up costs.

Many leaders know that they don’t listen enough. They give reasons – busyness mostly. What most of us do not realise is just how poorly they listen, much less the true reasons why many don’t listen better.

This was the focus of the research by Nathanael Fast and his colleagues at the University of Southern California.

They discovered that many leaders will stop listening when they lack self-confidence, feel defensive and have a need to protect their ego or status.

It turns out that when a leader isn’t feeling comfortable or confident they will shut down the conversation, stop actively listening or just walk away. What is also interesting about this research was how easily a manager’s state of confidence could be manipulated and how quickly it affected their ability to accurately judge others’ competence.

This research provides some interesting insights why those in leadership positions may not listen to advice at critical times. It suggests why some people seek to take command, direct conversations, talk too much, or worry about what they will say next in defence or rebuttal.  Additionally, why they react quickly or fail to make the time to listen to others.

Whilst it would not be wise to conclude that people do not always listen because they lack confidence or feel threatened, this research does provide more support for the need to develop a couple of key emotional intelligence skills – namely being able to make others feel safe to express their feelings and being about to manage your own emotions skilfully.


Here are 5 tips based on this research on how to be a better listener:

    A great way to remain self-confident is to write yourself a hand-written letter once a month, listing all of the things that you have accomplished (It really does work!). Listen or read positive material regularly that inspires you. Identify your biggest fans and then nurture those relationships. No (wo)man is an island—meaning you can’t do it all on your own. Sometimes all you need is a little reassurance or objective feedback, and your biggest fans are the people who do just that for you.

Stop worrying about what you’re going to say and focus on what’s being said. Don’t listen to have your opinions validated or your ego stroked, listen to be challenged and to learn something new. You’re not always right, so stop pretending you know everything and humble yourself to others. If you desire to be listened to, then give others the courtesy of listening to them.

    This is where posture, smiling, eye contact, and speech impacts on your ability to listen effectively.  Smiling will not only make you feel better, but will make others feel more comfortable around you. Try to keep your mouth closed when a person is speaking to you, maintain eye contact, actively take notes and resist fidgeting.  Use your hands and body language so others know that you are open to their viewpoint – for example don’t sit with your arms crossed and frowning – you may be concentrating on what others are saying but to many it may feel like you are disengaged.
    Some of us speak faster when we’re nervous. Some of us are naturally fast talkers. Regardless of your motivations, conscious or subconscious, speaking too quickly generally indicates a lack of confidence. Importantly, while speaking quickly, you’re more likely not to be truly thinking about what you are saying, indicating you have not really been listening. Try slowing your speech, paraphrasing what others are saying and asking follow up questions that show that you are actively listening.  These actions will encourage the speaker to be more open about his or her concerns.

When you are feeling out of your depth, under pressure give yourself the gift to ask a question of those who are talking to better understand the context or the content. Asking a question helps you slow down, acknowledge you are listening and value others opinion.

ACTION: Try the 3-SECOND RULE. After someone speaks don’t say anything for 3 seconds. See what happens.

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