Listen up, leader: Mastering the art of listening

The art of leadership is the art of listening.

In 2001, just before Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush eliminated federal funding for flood control projects in New Orleans. Over the next few years, multiple reports warned the administration about weaknesses in the city's levees but were ignored. When Katrina made landfall, and the levees broke, the devastation was far worse due to the failure of the federal government to listen to the warnings.

History is full of examples of leaders failing to listen to their people. And I will make a bold prediction that future leaders will continue to fail at listening.

But you don’t have to be among them.

So, today, I will share with you why it’s essential for you as a leader to master the art of listening, what it means to be an active listener, and how to practice and get better at it.

“Okay, but I’m not a President. And I listen to my people!”

Even if you’re already making an effort to listen, there is always room for improvement. And while you may not lead a country, active listening remains your best defense against preventable failures.

The Hurricane Katrina example shows what's at stake when leaders become overconfident in their views and dismiss input or feedback from others.

But wait, there’s more.

What’s arguably even worse than missing vital input from others is that failure to listen erodes trust.

I remember a time this happened to me. I was enthusiastically pushing to overhaul how we provisioned servers in our data centers. You see, our TechOps team was doing it manually and was slow and making mistakes.

I felt strongly that this was important for our company’s growth and had spent weeks researching and creating project plans.

When I finally brought it to my team to kick things off, I expected excitement equal to mine. But rather than running with my idea, the team felt we should focus on automating developer environments.

I was confused. Did they not see how dangerous it was for the business to rely on our faulty manual processes?

We went back and forth for an hour, but we kept talking past each other and not making any progress.

I wish I could tell you I immediately recognized the problem and spent the next few days listening to my team’s concerns. But I didn’t. I doubled down, trying to persuade them that my idea was sound for another two months. Quite unsuccessfully.

Only later did I realize that my failure wasn’t the lack of persuasiveness. My failure was not making my team feel heard and understood.

I focused on advocating my position rather than listening to my team's concerns. And in return, they were unprepared to hear me out.

How could they trust that I had their best interests in mind if I didn’t even bother to hear their concerns?

To sum it up, here's why active listening matters: it builds trust and connection. It signals, "I value what you have to say." It gathers more information and context, helping us problem-solve and find better solutions. And it models good behavior, encouraging others to listen actively in return.

What is active listening?

"Listening is hearing what isn't said." —Simon Sinek

You might think active listening involves making eye contact, facing the speaker, avoiding distractions, and nodding to show you’re paying attention. And you’d be right to think that!

However, making eye contact may be important for social reasons, but as many of my neurodivergent readers would attest, some brains can pay much closer attention if they can look anywhere but the speaker’s eyes. (“Which eye do I look at? Can I blink now? Is this too much blinking? They must think I’m being weird! Drat, what were they saying?”)

The point is that active listening is about making an effort to understand the other person’s perspective. Nodding and eye contact are secondary.

What it means in practice is speaking only to encourage the other person to continue, asking clarifying questions, and restating what you’ve heard to confirm understanding.

It’s harder than it sounds if you’re not practiced. But like any other skill, you get better with practice.

How to practice active listening

First, look out for what I call the “BS trap.”

You’ll be doing great—asking clarifying questions, nodding, and confirming understanding. And then they’ll say something that will sound like complete nonsense and trigger your automatic “this is BS” response. You’ll want to correct them, and you’ll want to respond with your perspective. Don’t!

Say this instead: “Can you say more?”

Assume you’re missing an essential piece of information that makes the nonsense make sense. Or at least make sense to them.

“I know how it makes sense to them—they are dumb!”

No, try again!

“It sounds like complete nonsense. Make it make sense to me.”

Nope, not this either.

Repeat with me, “Can you say more?”

Give this enough time, and one of three things will likely happen if you stick with this mantra:

  1. They’ll change your mind.
  2. They’ll change their mind.
  3. They’ll feel heard and ready to listen to you.

All great outcomes.

Other things to practice, in no particular order:

Bring no agenda to the conversation. If you come in with an agenda, you’ll want to share your perspective more than you want to understand theirs.

Allow the other person to speak without interjecting. Make a note if you want to return to a specific point later.

Encourage them to continue after they stop speaking. Either with silence or a gentle “go on.”

Ask follow-up questions designed to draw out more of their thinking. Avoid the “why” questions. We’re conditioned to hear “why” as an accusation and immediately become defensive. Compare: “Why did you choose this strategy?” Versus: “What motivated you to choose this strategy?”

Ask to repeat if you catch yourself spacing out. “Sorry, I missed that part. Can you repeat, please?”

Validate the other person's perspectives and feelings, even if you disagree. "I understand where you're coming from." Or “Thank you for being open about your thoughts. It helps me understand your perspective better."

Acknowledge the emotions behind the words. "I can hear the frustration in your voice, and that's understandable."

Summarize and restate in your own words what you’ve heard to confirm your understanding. “I hear you saying <insert your understanding>, did I miss anything?”

Repeat back parts you find meaningful to emphasize the importance. Just repeat it verbatim; there’s no need to add anything else. “This will double our productivity.” “We do not provision servers often but write and test code daily.”

Check-in if you notice shifts in tone or expression to make sure you understand the significance of the change. “I noticed a puzzled look on your face as you were saying that.

So, what's the real takeaway here? Active listening isn't just a nice-to-have for leaders; it's absolutely essential.

This isn't just about learning a skill. It’s about building a culture of respect and genuine connection. When we listen actively, we're not simply hearing words—we’re building more robust, honest, and authentic relationships with our teams. It's about making everyone feel heard and turning those conversations into action that makes a difference.

Master the art of listening, and you’ll master the art of leadership.