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Good Leaders Must Have Strong Active Listening Skills

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By Buster Nicholson, Public Sector Outreach at American Public University

For many of us, the default is to talk. We like to express our opinions and discuss topics that interest us, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, this often leads to missed opportunities to learn from those around us. Gaining understanding of situations and developing insight are key factors in building strong leadership skills. We gain situational awareness and insight through active listening.

[Related: Eight Ways Police Can Improve Their Active Listening Skills]

When speaking with someone, it quickly becomes apparent whether or not they are listening to you. If someone appears disinterested in what you are saying, how does that make you feel?

It is especially important for individuals in a leadership position to make it a top priority to listen to those around them. Listening not only helps leaders gain wisdom, it creates an inclusive organizational culture. Good listening skills don’t always come naturally, leaders must teach themselves how to be strong active listeners.

Steps to Improve Active Listening Skills

Leaders must actively listen every time they interact with peers, coworkers, supervisors, family, friends, and others. This can be easier said than done. Being a strong active listener requires a bit of strategy and practice  to master. Here are some tips on how leaders can strengthen their active listening skills:

  1. Make connections as the individual speaks to you. Everyone makes sense of the world around them through the lens of their own personal experiences. When you are engaged in a conversation, look for opportunities to connect the subject matter to your world. This causes you to think about what the individual is saying, which, in turn, activates your sense of inquiry.
  2. Ask follow-up questions. As mentioned earlier, everyone likes to talk about themselves. As you begin to make connections, follow up with thought-provoking and clarifying questions to get the individual to examine their ideas logically and determine the validity of those ideas. For example, an uncle comes to you and lets you know that he is selling all of his possessions and going to live off of the land with no survival skills and very little research on the subject. Connecting to the fact that you have spent many days in the woods yourself, you may ask a clarifying question like, “How would you secure a source of safe water for drinking and cooking?”
  3. Reflect on the conversation. Shortly after an engagement with an individual where you were actively listening through mentally connecting and asking relevant questions, you need to spend a moment reflecting on what was said and how you engaged in the topic at hand. Many times leaders are overwhelmed and jump from one fire to the next without spending much time reflecting during the day. Thoughtful reflection in a quiet setting will set up the next engagement with that individual and lead to building trust in the relationship and a learning opportunity for you.
  4. Return to the previous conversation. The next time you encounter the uncle who wants to get away from it all, even if the current conversation has nothing to do with him going it alone in the wild, bring it up at some point. In displaying an inquisitiveness about his interests, you are showing that you did in fact take his idea and reflect on it. Even though you may not agree with his decision, you have shown that you listened to what he had to say.

Good understanding wins favor. Showing it by active listening will help you to connect with people in a meaningful way, benefiting all parties. As you practice your active listening skills, you will begin to learn about the people around you in a deeper way and inevitably discover the wisdom that they have to offer.

Take some time to reflect on your listening habits. Make a plan to become an active listener and watch as your new outlook begins to positively impact your relationships and open doors to personal and professional success!

Buster NicholsonAbout the Author: Buster Nicholson is a senior manager of Public Sector Outreach at American Public University. He has a Master’s degree in Public Administration and has worked as a public school teacher, an analyst for the United States Secret Service, a town administrator, and a director of public works. At APU, he works with directors, senior managers, and staff from state and local government entities to facilitate leadership growth through education and professional development. You can reach him at

Buster Nicholson is a manager of Public Sector Outreach. He has an M.A. in Public Administration and has worked as a public school teacher, analyst for the U.S. Secret Service, a town administrator, and a director of public works. At AMU, he works with directors and staff in state and local government to facilitate leadership growth through education and professional development.

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