Good Listening Skills: Questioning and Empathizing

One of the key secrets of good leaders is good listening skills. Good listening does not just entail listening to others speak; it entails being perceptive to non-verbal cues and other stimuli from the environment.


Good leaders understand at some level that they don’t know it all. They don’t have all the answers and listening is their own of humility. It is the behaviour that says ‘I don’t know everything, so I need to gather information from people that know better than me.’

Sometimes, these people are employees, sometimes they’re experts. Whoever they are, leaders know when to stop talking and start listening because they’re going to receive valuable insight that could change their perspective and decisions.

Ernest Hemingway, the author once said, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”

If you are a leader and you aren’t listening; it probably means there is a lot going on behind the scenes that are missing your attention. Maybe there is office politics going on and its creating an unhealthy work environment in the office, or maybe a competitor has somehow managed to create a game-changing product that could jeopardize the existence of your organization.

Whatever it is, your team is receiving more information that you think and if you were wise, you would stop and listen to the many inputs that others have to offer.

How to Listen Well

For some more strong-headed personalities, this is going to be challenge. They’re used to making decisions and trusting their gut that they tend to reject new information coming in. For other more mild personalities, listening can be quite a natural behaviour to adopt.

Question the speaker

Listening well often does not just mean hearing what the person says. It means to seek to understand the intention, motivation, and perspective of the speaker.

Let’s have an example here:

“I really find that this office environment is not conducive to my growth. Everyone only cares about what their own department.”

Now, the natural response is to take the statement of face value; to accept that indeed the office environment is not conducive and needs adjusting, and to accept that most colleagues are apathetic.

But a good listener picks up the clues from the complaint and asks, “Why does the speaker say so? What experience did this speaker go through to make such a statement? Why does the speaker only tell me now?”

Besides listening to the statement, the good listener tries to understand the underlying motivations of the speaker in order to get the fuller picture of the situation. Perhaps the office environment does need to change; but perhaps the speaker needs to improve his/her social skills too.

A good listener would pick up these non-verbal clues by asking some questions to get a better picture: “What happened to make you say that? Are there others who think like you too?”

If the situation warrants, the good listener might proceed to speak with other colleagues to gain their perspective in order to truly understand the situation.

Empathize with the speaker

Active, empathetic listening is a form of non-judgmental listening that allows the speaker to open up entirely. Such an approach is more pastoral, but guarantees that you win the speaker over to yourself.

Many people are afraid of speak up their honest thoughts for fear of being judged. Hence, most people keep their struggles and challenges to themselves. Empathetic listening does not require you to agree with everything the speaker says, but requires you to understand the emotions behind the words.

“I really find that this office environment is not conducive to my growth. Everyone only cares about what their own department.”

“You must feel very isolated in the office.”

“Yes, how did you know? I feel like nobody understands me here and everyone just doesn’t care!”

“It must be quite hard to work in a place where everyone seems to be only fighting for themselves.”

The key here is not to try to solve the problem, at least at first. Empathetic listening simply acknowledges the emotions behind the words and put words to it so that the speaker knows that you understand. It is powerful in opening people up to share their innermost thoughts and feelings, so that you can truly understand the heart behind the words.

Such an approach may take a long time, most will think that ‘there’s work to be done,’ but if you can win someone over with your genuine attention and interest, you’ll be saving a lot more hours later trying to hire and re-train someone new when this person decides to leave the organization.

The Power of Good Listening Skills

In a world where people like to speak and few want to listen, you’ll win people over by the sheer fact you know how to listen. You will find that you will win the trust of people as a leader and it makes leading so much easier.

If you’re a natural at listening, congratulations to you! But if you find it a challenge to listen, this will be an important area of growth for you. Resist the impulse the conclude and decide too quickly, and give space for the inputs of others.

As Bernard M Baruch says, “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” So practice this skill today, and practice often.

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Listening Skills: Questioning & Empathizing

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