Focus on Leadership

Leading Through Listening

By Dan Bradley, M.S., and James Jancewicz
Stock image of two businessmen talking.

Regardless of title or specific job or mission, any employee can be a leader. In part, this opportunity occurs by using active listening skills (ALS) and conveying empathy. Anyone can use ALS at any time, making it a fundamental leadership tool. If colleagues, both internal and external to the organization, believe that an individual seeks to understand them, that person can influence decisions.

By listening an individual gains clear insight into coworkers’ and managers’ concerns. Leaders create an empathetic climate through effective listening. Empathy is not sympathy; it is the capacity to relate to the experience and emotional foundation of another person. It promotes trust and collaboration, which provide the opportunity to gain information to make the best decisions. By using ALS and striving to understand others, a person can lead from anywhere in the organization.1

Active Listening

“Active listening involves six skills—paying attention, holding judgment, reflecting, clarifying, summarizing, and sharing. Each skill contributes to the active listening mind-set and includes various techniques or behaviors.”2 Experienced leaders understand that active listening develops rapport and contributes to better understanding.

Basic use of ALS indicates that the person is listening and is interested in the conversation.3 Effective pauses create space in a conversation to allow the other person to keep talking, which enables the listener to elicit additional information.4 Asking open-ended questions provides an opportunity for leaders to gain information versus receiving only a narrow point of view.5 Emotional labeling enables the listener to assign a name to emotions, which demonstrates understanding of the facts and interest in the problem.6 Leaders convey minimal encouragers through basic, well-timed verbal acknowledgements that indicate they are engaged in the conversation.7 Over time, rapport will contribute to identifying and participating in problem solving. Like many other skills, active listening is perishable and requires regular practice to maintain proficiency.8

Who are the leaders within an agency, and how do they communicate? Most individuals know coworkers whom managers rely on during critical incidents, as well as during routine day-to-day operations. These employees are attentive to others’ concerns. They allow people to express opinions, and they forgo judgment of other people’s actions. These persons exhibit some of the characteristics of effective leadership. The foundations for great leadership are performance excellence and collaboration.


Leadership at all levels is accomplished through influence. Effective leaders gain influence beyond the grade they hold, and insufficient leaders’ prestige shrinks to less than what came with their position.9 Influence begins with effectively listening to other people to gain an understanding of what they hold important. Listening involves taking the time and making a concentrated effort to communicate with the speaker. Application of ALS enables individuals to better identify and understand the critical issues facing their colleagues and leaders.


The most basic human need is understanding—to understand and be understood.10 In today’s fast-paced world, multitasking is commonplace, and listening often is confused with hearing, which is not communication and often contributes to a lack of understanding. Another common mistake leaders make is failing to listen to the concerns of fellow employees—true leaders never should be too busy to listen.

In a society that values leaders who are action oriented, charismatic, visionary, and directive, the expectation is that they should have the answers, be in charge, and do the talking.11 Agencies’ emphasis on performance facilitates the ability to be quiet and listen.12 Most leaders believe they listen as much as they talk; however, research indicated that they do 80 percent of the talking in their interactions.13 An effective leader is successful at employing ALS and providing direction as needed.

Informal Leadership

Within law enforcement organizations, there are personnel whom managers routinely depend on to provide informal leadership during both routine and crisis situations. Critical incidents provide a compressed, magnified window into the nature of all roles within the agency. By using ALS and compassion during serious incidents, information can be elicited, thus, allowing a leader time to analyze and evaluate the situation. In addition, influence and listening skills establish buy in from key members to support organizational initiatives.14

Individuals in formal leadership roles recognize the value of informal leaders’ ability to understand organizational issues and rely on them to accomplish the stated goals and address reactive matters. Employment of ALS and empathy enables high levels of personal and professional leadership, which are highly valued in law enforcement.


Law enforcement professionals should make the effort to understand the perspective of each person they encounter. Active listening enables understanding of concerns and contributes to developing the best solutions.

ALS has specific techniques and requires regular practice to maintain proficiency. While the application of ALS is most apparent during critical incidents, it also is effective in routine situations. Through active listening and empathy, law enforcement professionals develop an understanding of viewpoints within the organization concerning a given issue and position themselves to influence or provide direction. By doing so, regardless of their position, individuals fill important leadership roles within the organization.

Special Agent Bradley and Special Agent Jancewicz are assigned to the FBI’s Buffalo, New York, Division. For additional information Special Agent Jancewicz may be contacted at


1 Gary Noesner and Mike Webster, “Crisis Intervention: Using Active Listening Skills in Negotiations,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1997, 13; and William A. Gentry, Todd J. Weber, and Golnaz Sadri, Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership (New York, NY: Center for Creative Leadership).
2 Michael H. Hoppe, Active Listening: Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead (Greensboro, NC: Center For Creative Leadership, 2006).
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Noesner and Webster, “Crisis Intervention.”
9 John C. Maxwell, The 360 Degree Leader: Developing Your Influence from Anywhere in the Organization (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2005).
10 Ralph G. Nichols, “The Struggle to be Human” (keynote address presented at the First Annual Convention of the International Listening Association, Atlanta, GA, February 17, 1980), accessed November 16, 2015,
11 Hoppe, Active Listening.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).