Leadership Spotlight

Importance of Listening Skills

Stock image of a business woman listening to another female.


“God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak.”    

—Irish Proverb1

Who do you consider the best leaders you ever had? What about them inspired you to do better? Chances are, you think so highly of them largely because they listened to you.

Being an attentive listener proves vital for effective leaders. You cannot inspire or develop employees if you do not listen to them. Further, you will not know what goes on with your people. Listening shows that you care, and it makes personnel feel valued and important.

This critical skill comprises one of the cornerstones of leadership. By actively listening, you develop loyal people motivated to fulfill your mission. Listening well means paying attention to body language and facial expressions and having emotional intelligence. You can improve in this area by practicing, studying, and improving your listening skills. Along the way, you likely will progress as a leader.

Failing to Listen

Have you ever had a boss who typed on his computer while you tried to tell him something?2 Or, did he give you direction before you finished what you had to say? Most likely, you did not care for him as your leader. Perhaps you were not motivated to work for him and, worse, tried to avoid him as much as possible.

In this type of situation, you may have felt unimportant to the organization and perhaps had no desire to give your best. Why would you if your boss did not value your input or think enough of you even to listen? Subsequently, you may not have cared about your work because your boss obviously did not either.

People have an innate need to be valued. A boss who is an active listener makes his personnel feel that they matter. When he engages and pays attention to his employees, he shows their importance.

Practicing Empathy

A key part of listening involves empathy. Balance the head and the heart. “Mission first, people always.”3 Listening well means you pay attention to your employees and what goes on with them. If you understand your people, you sometimes can fix small problems before they become large ones.

Engaging Yourself

If your employees come to you, engage them. Get rid of distractions―no typing on the computer or looking at your phone. Give them your full attention. Concentrate on their words and their body language—as well as your own. Lean in and show interest in what they have to say.

Resist the urge to interrupt or offer advice immediately. When they finish talking, take a few seconds before responding. Doing so ensures they have shared their thoughts, and it gives you time to think about your answer. Further, repeat in your own words what your employees have said to you. This technique shows that you listened and understand the point they tried to make.

Earlier in my career, the undersheriff called me to his office after learning of my discontent with a new job assignment. He had become aware of some unflattering comments I made about the organization. My captain also was present as I received a verbal scolding and learned that the undersheriff had handpicked me for the assignment.

It was a low point in my professional life, and I was unsure if I could recover from it. The captain took me back to his office and let me vent about my feelings. He listened to my concerns about what had happened. Also, he shared his own story and reassured me that I could recover and move forward.

Becoming a Better Listener

  1. Engage yourself
  2. Be empathetic
  3. Do not judge
  4. Ask clarifying questions
  5. Pause before replying
  6. Face the speaker
  7. Make eye contact
  8. Remain attentive
  9. Keep an open mind
  10. Pay attention to nonverbal clues

Asking Questions

You can show empathy effectively by asking questions. Probing further into what employees tell you shows that you care about what they say. It also clarifies what they communicated and ensures you understand their point of view. However, pay attention when you ask questions. Do not ask one that shows you have not been paying attention. Stay fully engaged.

Additionally, face the person talking to you and make eye contact. Put any possible distractions aside and lean in. These subtle body language clues show you are paying attention to them.

Understanding Perception

Have you ever had a boss who did not seem to listen, but, in fact, did? It can be disconcerting and leave mixed messages. I had one such manager. He always typed on his computer while I talked to him. Sometimes, I wanted to walk out in the middle of these conversations just to see if he would notice. However, he always asked a follow-up question that showed he really was listening. Usually, this caught me off guard and almost made me forget what I was saying.


Improving as a leader includes becoming a better listener. When employees want to talk, remember that it is not about you. Never be too busy to listen. Recognize their point of view and repeat what they said in your own words to ensure clarity. Employees deserve your full attention—focus on them. Do not give advice before they finish speaking. Remember that employees may become silent to gather thoughts—allow them the opportunity. Also, never downplay others’ feelings; the situation may not seem like a big deal to you, but it is to them.

Everyone wants to be heard and understood. Leaders should practice becoming a better listener to more effectively lead and communicate with personnel in the organization. Commitment to this key leadership trait may prove helpful for employees and improve agency morale.

Captain Vernon Elliott with the Ingham County, Michigan, Sheriff’s Office prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at velliott@ingham.org.


1 Scrapbook.com, accessed December 12, 2017, https://www.scrapbook.com/quotes/doc/13165.html.
2 For illustrative purposes, masculine pronouns are used throughout this article.
3 “Mission First, People Always. Brig. Gen. Patton Shares His Command Philosophy,” Leathernet.com (blog), August 26, 2004, accessed December 12, 2017, http://www.leatherneck.com/forums/showthread.php?16504-Mission-first-People-always-Brig-Gen-Patton-shares-his-command-philosophy.