One of the most important skills we practice as leaders is our listening skills. People with strong listening ability are more likely to understand tasks and projects, build strong relationships with employees and co-workers, and are able to better solve problems and resolve conflicts. 

Last week one of my clients came to me with a challenge that was really bothering her. One of her employees had been behaving in a troubling way, and as the leader of the team, she was becoming increasingly frustrated with the effect the negative behavior was having on the morale and energy of the other team members. The employee would make negative comments at meetings, look for flaws in whatever the organization was doing, and behave in a troublesome way. At the end of their last team meeting together, when it seemed like an upcoming program issue they were working on was being understood, and agreed upon, the employee once again said something disruptive that created conflict and negative feelings in the group. This leader wanted to uncover whatever issues this team member was having and hopefully help. She came to me and asked for some assistance. 

My suggestion was to do more listening than anything else. By listening first, she would be better able to understand what was going on with her employee.

We discussed two types of listening – active listening and reflective listening.

Active listening is about being attentive so that the other person knows you are paying attention, you are listening to understand, and that you are expressing care about what they have to say. It requires verbal and nonverbal elements like:

  • Making affirming sounds like “mmhmmm”
  • Not interrupting
  • Maintain eye contact
  • Nodding to acknowledge
  • Mirroring their body language
  • Being physically attentive like facing the speaker, sitting up straight, or leaning forward

Reflective listening is about making sure what is said is understood. It involves reflecting back and repeating or paraphrasing what the speaker has said to show that you truly understand. It can also mean asking probing questions. Here are some actions that are reflective:

  • Paraphrasing
  • Repeating back what you heard for confirmation
  • Asking questions to understand (not respond) that help you clarify what is being said
  • Asking open ended questions – one that can’t be answered with one word
  • Responding appropriately and within context

Leaders who listen well will more effectively be able to interpret what is going on and help solve problems. Listening well will help also establish trust, express empathy, and create safety for the other person. It will open up coaching opportunities to support the growth and development of team members.

One bit of a warning – a leader’s job is to listen well and then support the employee to be successful. Sometimes in an effort to resolve issues, we jump to solutions and try to make everything better faster without really understanding what the problem is in the first place. Check out this short video I made about not jumping to solutions:

Listening is a skill to learn, so the more you practice good listening techniques, the better you will get. If you need support or coaching with other communication skills, please reach out to me, Marcy Fortnow at

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