The Most Undervalued Leadership Competency


Listening is a vastly undervalued leadership competency. Most of us have spent the better part of our communication related professional development focused on how to become more persuasive speakers and writers, gaining influence with others by convincing them through powerful vocabularies, elegant delivery, and related verbal and written talents. But, the time and investment we’ve spent on listening is, by and large, nil.

In Dr. Covey’s seminal book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he dedicates one of the habits to listening, Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. Think about that for a moment. A book that has sold over 30,000,000 copies and is translated in 47 languages dedicated 15% to simply learning to listen. This shows how important, vital, one of the most influential minds and teachers of our time values the skill of listening. For the record, none of The 7 Habits focus on speaking… a habit of highly effective people…..

Dr. Covey addresses four specific types of listening that we often default to that prevent us from becoming more empathic listeners:

  • Ignoring – truly not listening at all.
  • Pretending – employing automatic responses like “Yeah. Uh-huh. Right.”
  • Selective – Hearing only certain parts of the conversation that we relate to or personally value.
  • Attentive – Paying attention and focusing energy on the words that are being said (sounds good, but did you really understand their meaning)?

More valuable is Empathic Listening. Listening with the intent to understand. Suspending your thinking long enough to actually get inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it and try to sincerely see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm and begin to understand how they feel.

Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is a form of agreement, and sometimes may be appropriate for the situation. But people feed on sympathy and makes them further dependent…..on you.

The essence of Empathic Listening is not that you agree or disagree with someone, it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually. This form of listening is more than just reflecting or understanding. It requires you to listen not just to what they’re saying, but their body language as well (which research shows is about 60% of communication).

You listen for feeling, meaning, and behavior. You sense, intuit and feel.

Stephen said, “the deepest need of the human heart is to feel understood.” So slow down. It’s hard. But slow way down the next time (like in 2 mins) that you’re in a conversation where emotions are high. Listen for what the other person is really saying. 

Stretch yourself uncomfortably to look through another person’s frame of reference. That’s demonstrating empathic listening.

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About the Author

Scott Miller

Scott Miller is a 25-year associate of FranklinCovey and serves as Senior Advisor, Thought Leadership. Scott hosts the world’s largest and fastest-growing podcast/newsletter devoted to leadership development, On Leadership. Additionally, Scott is the author of the multi-week Amazon #1 New Releases, Master Mentors: 30 Transformative Insights From Our Greatest Minds, Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow, and the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Everyone Deserves a Great Manager: The 6 Critical Practices for Leading a Team. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and three sons.

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